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Does stress eating actually make you less stressed?

Anxiously, I called a health psychologist to find out.

Grocery stores shelves filled with different kinds of chips.
An effective coping mechanism?
UIG via Getty Images

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Americans are pretty stressed out lately. In part, it is the political situation; in part, it is our times. Late last month, the American Psychological Association released their annual Stress in America survey, breaking down the reasons we are pulling out our hair, strand by strand.

“Forty-five percent of the survey respondents said they ‘lay awake at night due to stress,’” wrote Vox’s Brian Resnick. “Sixty-two percent said the current political climate is a significant stressor in their lives. And 56 percent agreed ‘this is the lowest point in the nation’s history they could remember.’” Other widespread sources of mass stress were work, money, health, and personal debt.

The ever-growing wellness industry is one response to this mounting pressure. (Are you worried about wage stagnation? Try celery juice!) But Applebee’s, middle-market icon of American cuisine, has a different prescription for the country: Get it tipsy and order the mozzarella sticks. “Americans are stressed,” Applebee’s president John Cywinski told CNN, suggesting that when your product is comfort food, stress translates very nicely into sales.

He is not wrong. For the second year in a row, just over a third of American adults reported eating “too much” or “unhealthy” food because of stress, according to the APA survey. “When stressed,” Cywinski said, people “tend to go to comfort food ... and we’re pretty darn good at comfort food.” (They’ve also seen an increase of booze sales.)

The question is: Does it work? And if it does, what are we — miserable, but aspiring toward health — supposed to do about it? A. Janet Tomiyama, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Dieting, Stress, and Health Lab at UCLA, has been trying to figure that out.

I spoke to Tomiyama about what we know, what we don’t, and why ice cream might be a salve for our political anxieties. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start at the very beginning: What is stress eating? Is it different than “emotional eating” or “comfort eating”?

I can tell you that the researchers are also arguing about this, and so your confusion is not unusual. It seems as if emotional eating is a broader thing. So emotional eating can be in response to stress, but it can also be in response to anger or sadness — some researchers even characterize boredom as an emotion. If there’s a Venn diagram, then “emotional eating” is the biggest circle and then within it is what I call stress eating or comfort eating. That’s when you’re eating specifically in response to stress, and not any of these other emotions.

So maybe the real question is: How do you define stress?

You’ve waded into another huge theoretical argument: What is stress? Some people define it as a stressful event happening, so you lose your job. That equals stress. But there’s another view — and I would say this view is a little bit more well-established — that it’s a negative experience you feel like you can’t handle.

So it’s a very psychological thing: It’s not, “My tire went flat.” It’s, “Okay, my tire went flat, and this is really upsetting to me.” If you’re a billionaire and you have 10 cars, a tire going flat doesn’t matter to you — you have a chauffeur who will fix it. That’s why it’s really important to focus on how you subjectively feel. And if you feel stressed, then we trust you — we say you’re stressed.

Does it work? Ignoring other potential downsides, if I eat a pint of ice cream because I’m stressed, will I feel better?

So I first came to this after I read a series of really interesting studies in rodents, actually. And those studies show that when you give rats access to comfort food — in their case usually Crisco mixed with sugar — and you stress them out, what you see is that over time, that comfort food actually dampens their stress hormones, it dampens down their brain’s responsivity to stress, it dampens down the signaling between the brain and the rest of the body, so they don’t secrete as many stress hormones.

I was thinking, okay, well, is this the case in humans, too? Because currently, we really demonize this behavior of stress eating. We shake our fingers and we say, “Don’t do that, it’s not good for you.”

But in my mind, if it’s serving this really important function of actually dampening down our physiological stress level, it warrants a closer look. And we find across several studies, that yeah, it seems to be effective. Not just psychologically, but also biologically — people who do a lot of comfort eating tend to show a reduced level of stress hormones and stress.

So if/when I eat the ice cream, what’s happening?

When you do anything that’s rewarding to you — meaning that the reward parts of your brain sort of light up — those parts of the brain can sort of dampen down the parts of your brain that are freaking out with negative emotion. And that’s why comfort foods tend to be foods that are high in sugar and fat. They’re really rewarding; they really do light up the reward centers of our brains.

There’s also some work showing that when you do comfort eating, it builds up fat in your belly region and that fat pad sends a signal to your brain to decrease the amount of stress hormones that you’re producing, and the specific signal hasn’t been worked out yet. So that’s another pathway.

And then there’s conditioning. If throughout your whole life, you’ve paired stress relief with comfort foods over and over again, then soon enough, your body is going to automatically respond to eating these comfort foods with relaxation.

A lot of us have grown up, we had a bad day at school, our moms baked us cookies, right? If all those things happened at the same time, over and over and over again, pretty soon you don’t even need mom or her hug. You get comfort from just the cookies.

So it kind of sounds like you’re saying maybe eating isn’t the best way to destress, but it is soothing.

Yeah. If you see something in multiple species, to me — to scientists in general — that means that that is an important behavior. And, in addition to rodents, we also see comfort eating working in some non-human primate species as well. So my main take home from this is self-compassion: You’re not doing the comfort eating because you’re some sort of weak-willed human being; you’re biologically driven to do this.

And layered on top of that is your whole life, pushing you toward comfort eating. And so it’s — how do I want to say this? The people who don’t comfort eat, those are the weirdos.

Speaking of weirdos, why doesn’t everyone have the same response? Everyone (presumably) feels stress, but some people eat, and others totally lose their appetites.

We don’t know the why. The best numbers we have currently are that 40 percent of people increase their eating when they’re stressed, 40 percent decrease their eating, and 20 percent stay the same. That’s really old data, so we’re actually this fall launching a new nationally representative study to see if that’s even true. I just think the percent of people who eat more when they’re stressed is higher than 40 percent.

But anyway, those are the numbers we have right now. Men tend to stress eat less than women, so that’s something we know. But that’s about as much as we know for who does it and why, and that’s really an important next step.

I’m trying to figure out what to do with this. Like, even if stress eating works, we still probably shouldn’t do it all that often. But it’s tempting, because it works!

So we’ve amassed a little bit of evidence showing that comfort eating actually comforts, but a lot of people say, “Okay that’s great, but we don’t want people eating Snickers bars every time they’re stressed, so what do we do here?”

So what I’ve been trying to do very, very recently is to see if we can get healthy foods to also be comforting. In the rat studies, it’s Crisco mixed with sugar, or some have used Oreo cookies. They’ve only tested unhealthy foods, and I think that on a cultural level, we assume comfort eating has to be ice cream or brownies — really unhealthy stuff. Nobody’s even tried to see if we could also be comforted by a strawberry.

I literally have a note here that says “nobody stress eats strawberries, do they?”

Yeah, nobody does. Well, I shouldn’t say nobody, we have some survey data showing that some people do, which makes me roll my eyes because who are these people?

But there are reasons to believe that strawberries might work as comfort food. There’s some research showing that any sweet taste can dampen stress. There’s other research about, this is about emotional eating, where they had subjects either eat chocolate or potato chips or fruit, and actually it was the fruit group who reported the highest positive emotion afterward.

But, you know, I’m a skeptical scientist. Part of me is like, I don’t know, guys ... I don’t know we’ll ever get there with strawberries. So in a study that we’re running right now, we’re trying to do a mind hack to get people to be really calmed and soothed by strawberries, or whatever fruit. We’re literally doing Pavlovian classical conditioning: We’re having people do a relaxation exercise and eat fruit at the same time, and we have them do that over and over and over and over again, with the hope that eventually, just the strawberry alone will automatically elicit this relaxation response. And so that way, even if fruit doesn’t naturally comfort you, maybe we could use this mind hack to get you to feel really soothed from strawberries.

Is there more stress eating than there used to be?

We do know that stress is on the rise in America. We also know that of all the different stressors that there are out there — exam stress, jumping-out-of-a-plane stress — it’s stressors that are uncontrollable that pack the biggest punch.

The political situation feels really big and really uncontrollable, we know that that kind of stress is really potent, and we know that that’s the kind of stress that most increases the stress hormone cortisol, and cortisol is what makes you reach for these comfort foods. So I see a direct path between stress increasing and stress eating increasing.

Does that have public health implications? If people are increasingly stressed, and at least 40 percent of those people are stress eating, it seems like a problem.

Well, we know that no matter what you actually weigh — it doesn’t matter if you’re skinny or heavy — if you have a bad diet, that’s really bad for you. Many studies have shown that diet is really the number one driver of all these chronic diseases people are experiencing today, so diabetes, heart disease, it plays a big role in cancer as well.

We know stress alone is bad. And we know that diet is bad, too. And we know when you combine these two, it’s even worse. That’s why I’m really trying to engage in this mind hack of flipping stress eating to be fruits instead of brownies. If you could get this mind hack working, then every time you’re stressed, not only are you eating one more serving of fruit, which in itself is linked to decreases in mortality, but you’re also not eating what you would have eaten, so you’re not eating the ice cream. It would be a double benefit.

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