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If you find yourself dashing to the pantry after an emotionally intense day, it’s clear that you’re not alone. The eating decisions we make in stressful times are truly different, as proven by scientists from the University of California Davis.
“It is becoming clear that stress degrades our ability to make healthy food choices for long-term well-being,” said Kevin Laugero, a research nutritionist at the UC Davis Department of Nutrition.
The department analysed the decision-making patterns of 29 obese women by giving them a gambling card game. Academics looked at the way the women identified options that offered better long-term gain despite short-term costs. While most of them could identify and choose the cards that resulted in long-term benefits, some were quicker than others, and some did not see the difference at all.
The women were then put on a diet with specially prepared meals for 15 weeks. While some women lost 12kg, others didn’t lose any weight at all.
“Although we can only speculate, we assume those who lost fewer pounds may have deviated from the prescribed diet, when they were at home, for example,” Laugero said.
Not surprisingly, the women who scored highest in the gambling task also lost the most weight, because of their ability to manage short-term pain for long-term gain.
“That suggests that those who are better at making decisions based on long-term consequences are more successful at maintaining weight loss,” said Megan Witbrach, a postdoctoral researcher involved.
Cortisol, the hormone your body releases to manage stress, already has a bad reputation for causing abdominal weight gain. But it also seemed to be associated with bad decisions: volunteers with the highest cortisol levels also scored lowest on the gambling task - and lost the least amount of weight.
But even among those with normal cortisol levels, their levels rose when volunteers were put on calorie restricted diets. Ms Witbrach suggested this may have been because people recognise that dieting can be stressful.
“Just because you understand dietary guidelines doesn’t mean you will follow them, especially when you’re under stress,” added Laugero.
“For many, being aware of their emotions and controlling their response to stressful situations may significantly improve decisions about what and how much to eat.”
Laugero suggested that stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and journalling would be helpful for those struggling with their emotional eating habits.
Emotional eating can be effectively curbed with the help of a clinical psychologist, such as Adelaide Bariatric Centre’s Dr Cate Howell. She helps counsel patients through the reasons they may be eating when they aren’t hungry, and works through how to change your brain to make smarter decisions.
IMAGE CREDIT: Amy McTigue