Can positive social experiences encourage unhealthy eating as much as negative ones? According to an Association for Psychological Science Press Release from Oct. 31, new evidence suggests that those who tend to overeat in relaxed social situations are displaying similar unhealthy compensating behaviors as those who eat in response to emotional stress. These patterns of calorie consumption suggest that the behavior of both stress eaters and non-stress eaters could have equal effects on body weight over time.
While approximately 40% to 50% of the population increase their food consumption under stressful conditions, lead researcher Gudrun Sproesser of Germany’s University of Konstanz, set out to examine what effects positive social experiences may have on impacting eating behavior.
Her study published in Psychological Science showed that when faced with negative feedback, stress eaters or ‘munchers’ consumed an average 120 more calories than did ‘skippers’ who tend to avoid food when faced with a stressful situation.
However, when faced with positive feedback, munchers actually ate less, while skippers tended to eat more —on average, 74 calories more than the munchers.
These results challenge the need to regulate emotional eating; suggesting that if forced regulation of is induced, it may increase the stress level and potentially disrupting the more compensatory eating patterns during positive emotional times.
While emotional eating tends to be associated with the suppression or soothing of negative emotions such as stress and anxiety, those prone to unhealthy eating in the absence of such emotions be doing so in response to the long term repetition of bad habits. When a pattern emerges of repeatedly eating certain foods in a given situation such as popcorn and candy at movies, snacking while watching TV, fried bar food at a regular hang-out, etc.; over time the brain begins to associate the food with the activity and eating the food becomes the habitual response. If the food is particularly good, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the activity from eating the food. Repeating this behavior often enough and eating that food becomes a habit even when not experiencing negative emotions.
While past research has concentrated mainly on the negative effects of social stress on eating, the present findings suggest the importance of addressing adjustments to food consumption in both positive and negative situations, so that health professionals may implement the most successful healthy eating strategies.
It should not be assumed that stress eaters are more at risk for weight gain. According to Sproesser. “Our results suggest the need for a dynamic view of food intake across multiple situations, positive and negative.”
Stress Eaters May Compensate by Eating Less When Times Are Good, Press Release, Oct. 31, Association of Psychological Sciences, Contact: Anna Mikulak
The Bright Side of Stress-Induced Eating Eating More When Stressed but Less When Pleased Gudrun Sproesser, Psychological Assessment and Health Psychology, University of Konstanz, Box 47, D-78457 Konstanz, Germany E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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