Dieters Tend to Overeat When Stressed

Survey: People Who Diet a Lot More Likely to Overeat in Times of Stress

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 8, 2011 (Washington, D.C.) -- If you diet a lot, you may be more likely to overeat in times of stress, a new survey suggests.

Also, people tend to gorge on high-calorie, high-fat junk foods when eating under stress, says study leader Kayla Ten Eycke, MSc, of the department of psychology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.

"Having an occasional piece of chocolate cake may make you less prone to overeating chocolate cake during stressful times," she tells WebMD.

Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, a senior scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, says that although a survey doesn't provide scientific proof that dieting influences food choices during stress, it makes sense.

"If you're always dieting, you may throw up your hands in times of stress and say, 'I'll eat what I want to,'" she tells WebMD.

"If you're more moderate, you would have worked out a way to eat for health. You don't use stress as an excuse to overeat a food you're typically forbidden from having," Lichtenstein says. She was not involved with the work.

The findings were presented here at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.

Junk Food Preferred During Stressful Times

Previous research has shown that stress causes biological and psychological changes that influence what foods we prefer and what foods we eat, Eycke notes.

To find out more about food choices during stress, she and colleagues recruited 158 adults to fill out a 44-question survey.

Among the results:

  • Only about 20% reported they ate the same amount when they were stressed out as when they weren't. About 40% said they ate less than usual, and 40% said they ate more than usual.
  • Compared with people who shied away from food when stressed (stress under-eaters), those who ate more than usual (stress overeaters) were substantially more likely to have been on diets lasting longer than two weeks.
  • Stress overeaters had wider waists and hips and weighed more, on average, than stress under-eaters.
  • All the people surveyed said they ate foods that were higher in calories, fat, salt, carbohydrates, and sugar during times of stress.

"This indicates a shift in preference toward unhealthy, palatable food while under stress," Eycke says.

But stress overeaters reported eating even unhealthier foods during stress than stress under-eaters, she says.

For example, nearly all of the stress overeaters said they preferred to eat chocolate, candy, or other sweets when stressed out, compared with about 60% of stress under-eaters.

On the other hand, about 40% of stress under-eaters preferred fruits, vegetables, and cheese during times of stress vs. only about 2% of stress overeaters.

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.


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SOURCES: American Psychological Association's 119th Annual Convention, Washington, D.C. Aug. 4-7, 2011.Kayla Ten Eycke, MSc, department of psychology, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, senior scientist, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition research Center on Aging, Tufts University, Boston. ©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.