Maybe Stress-Eating Is Just a Myth

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Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At this point, the idea of food as stress reliever is something past cliché: When the going gets tough, it feels like a good time to order the greasiest, gloppiest takeout you can find, or post up on the couch with a pint of ice cream and a spoon. But as far as emotional relief goes, it turns out that food isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be: In 2014, a study found that stress-eating isn’t even that fun. And now, a new study in the journal Biological Psychology takes things several steps further, arguing that stress-eating isn’t even that real — that stress, far from pushing people to seek out food as comfort, actually cuts down on their intake.

For the study, 59 volunteers filled out a questionnaire to determine how well they fit into three different categories of eating style: restrained eaters, who monitor and restrict their food intake to manage their weight; external eaters, who eat in response to “food cues” like sight or smell; and emotional eaters, who consume food in response to positive or negative emotional events. Five times a day, for ten days afterward, they used an app to report on their emotional state, stress level, and what they’d eaten since their last check-in. For each food entry, they also noted whether it was a meal or snack, how much their choice of food was influenced by time constraints, and whether the episode was appetite-driven or taste-driven: Did they eat because they were hungry, or did they eat simply because they wanted whatever it was they were consuming?

At the end of the ten-day period, the researchers discovered that contrary to popular belief, stress wasn’t a motivating factor in what they called “taste-eating.” In fact, the opposite was true: The more stressed-out people felt, the less likely they were to report eating for reasons other than hunger. Across the participant pool, the only relationship the authors found between negative emotions of all kinds and taste-eating was in low emotional eaters, who actually did eat less when they were feeling bad.

And it wasn’t because stress just made people hungrier, precluding opportunities for taste-eating – “hunger-eating,” the researchers noted, wasn’t significantly influenced by stress or any other emotions, good or bad.

What did increase taste-eating, though, was the opposite of stress: Positive emotions made people more likely to chow down even when they didn’t feel hungry. The volunteers in the sample didn’t stress-eat; they happy-ate, a finding that fits with our tendency to center celebrations around food: Birthday? Cake. Good news at work? Someone got doughnuts for the morning meeting. Did something kick-ass and want to treat yourself? Express your joy with a cupcake (or several). For the tougher moments, though, it may be better to try journaling, or go for a run, or even just take a long shower and cry it out.