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The link between stress and comfort eating

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During periods of sadness, stress, unhappiness boredom or loneliness, many people eat to make themselves feel better. This is called comfort eating. Eating in such a manner is okay from time to time, but under today’s increasingly stressful modern environment, individuals regularly use eating to cope, and this is having a negative effect.

According to the National Health Survey carried out in Australia during 2004, roughly 5 million people were suffering from moderate to very high stress levels. The types of stress can vary. Links have been found between work stress (including high workloads), social pressures, depression and low self-esteem and emotional eating.

This is a problem that is contributing to the current obesity epidemic and the negative consequences that result.

In 2004, it was estimated that nearly 2.5 million Australians were considered obese. Aside from the increased risk of poor health and disability the results from obesity, this epidemic is costing the Australian health service millions of dollars. It is therefore important that we identify the causes of comfort eating in order to treat this eating disorder effectively.

So why are people resorting to comfort eating? Recent research is showing evidence that comfort eating individuals are reacting to both psychological and chemical responses to stress.

Evidence shows that comfort foods tend to be chosen based on sweetness with fatty tastes. These foods can be seen as a treat or reward to try and boost an individual’s mood.

In addition, stressful situations can be characterised by issues such as low mood, anxiety and depression, and are related to high tension and lower energy. As such, stressed individuals are linked to greater energy and fat intake in their diets and less healthy diets to compensate for the stress.

Some food companies are using this trend to market products such as sports drinks, caffeine drinks and snack bars to provide both physical and ’emotional’ energy.

Studies comparing sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened soft drinks found that both forms of the beverage were associated with a high Body Mass Index and emotional eating.

This suggests that it is the taste rather than the sugar content that is necessary for a comfort eater. It also emphasises the idea that these foods are used as a treat.

Eating when hungry is both gratifying and rewarding. The act of eating activates certain chemicals in the brain. There is a lot of evidence showing that these chemical systems are linked to a ‘reward’ response in the brain. It is thought that these systems give a person the motivation to want and enjoy food. These responses are believed to be an adaptive response to stress and discomfort.

In animals and human babies, sweet and fatty foods reduce crying and other behavioural signs of discomfort. This effect depends on the sweet taste and can be blocked by the chemical systems.

Studies have found that the tolerance for pain in adults and children can be improved by sweet taste. This suggests that these chemical systems are helping to relieve the stress.

Some differences have been found based on gender and age. Emotional eating has been linked to an increase in Body Mass Index in women, but not in men.

Some findings support the idea that obese people have a chemical tendency in their brain that may cause overeating. This is supported by findings that obese women will put a greater effort into obtaining energy-dense snack foods compared to non-obese women.

It was also found that young children of obese parents show greater ‘enjoyment of food’ and a higher preference for energy-dense snack foods.

As many studies are based on self-reporting styles of investigation, measures of factors such as eating styles may not be accurate. It has been suggested that societal pressures may cause women to assess their styles of eating more critically than men. This is important to note as it may influence the gender differences found in these studies.

Research is finding that the ‘sensitivity to reward’ was lower in obese than overweight individuals. This suggests that as comfort eating progresses it can become a chronic condition, and a person will need increasingly higher amounts of food to obtain the reward necessary to relieve their stress. This can almost be seen as similar to drug addiction. As such, it is important that effective treatment be developed.

Discussion and education with a physician are important to help establish concepts of normal eating, dieting and exercise patterns. A physician/dietitian can help develop an appropriately nutritious diet with instructions on sensible ways to limit fat and sugar intake, as well as offer encouragement for doing proper exercise. In more extreme cases, cognitive therapy can be used to correct dysfunctional thinking patterns and assumptions about food. In addition, interpersonal therapy can be used to identify and improve the underlying problems that resulted in the development of this eating disorder.

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Posted On: 23 October, 2007
Modified On: 16 January, 2014


Created by: myVMC