Why Stressors Make Us Eat

High calorie food may seem more appealing in tough times

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) What is it about stress that makes denser foods more appealing? In the modern world, the survival instinct can trigger the now unnecessary desire to eat high-calorie foods. 

A recent study tested a theory that people would eat more high-calorie food than low-calorie food when they believe they are in tough times.

The study’s findings showed that people ate significantly more of the food they believed to be high-calorie when faced with sentences filled with words pertaining to survival.

Since consuming extra calories when stressed is not a healthy practice, these findings could help guide individuals trying to promote healthy habits.

"Talk to your doctor about appropriate healthy eating."

Juliano Laran, PhD, assistant professor of marketing, and Anthony Salerno, doctoral student, at the School of Business Administration at the University of Miami in Florida, worked together to investigate people's eating habits during economic slumps.

In this study, researchers looked to see if thoughts of scarce resources would influence how many calories people would consume.

For the first experiment, 121 men and women on a college campus were asked to participate in a taste test. Participants were asked to sit in one of two environments to taste M&Ms with either high-calorie or low-calorie chocolate. The M&Ms were actually from the same batch and had equal calories.

One of the environments had a 6 ft. sign on which six completely neutral sentences were written. The second environment had a 6 ft. sign on which six “harsh” environment sentences were written. Each of the sentences in the second environment contained one of the following words: “survival,” “withstand,” “persistence,” “shortfall,” “struggle” and “adversity.”

Researchers measured how many ounces of the M&Ms participants ate and asked them to fill out a seven question survey about the M&Ms. Participants in the neutral environment consumed 14.71 grams of “low-calorie” M&Ms and 13.68 grams of “high-calorie” M&Ms. Participants in the harsh environment consumed 10.56 grams of low-calorie M&Ms and 18.90 grams of high-calorie M&Ms.

Study results showed people ate more of the “high-calorie” M&Ms in the harsh environment. The researchers believed the increase in high-calorie intake was the result of participants' survival instinct to consume more calories in the face of limited resources.

According to the survey responses, participants did not consume more high-calorie M&Ms due to taste preference.

Dr. Laran said, “Now that we know this sort of messaging causes people to seek out more calories out of a survival instinct, it would be wise for those looking to kick off a healthier new year to tune out news for a while.”

Authors suggested environmental stress might not be what drives people to overeat as much as it drives the desire to stockpile resources. The outcome of overeating is the same, but strategies to prevent overeating may need to calculate the root of the problem based on this new finding.

“It is clear from the studies that taste was not what caused the reactions, it was a longing for calories. These findings could have positive implications for individuals in the healthcare field, government campaigns on nutrition, and companies promoting wellness,” Dr. Laran said.

Consuming extra calories in the face of stress may be an unhealthy practice.

This study was published in January in Psychological Science. No financial information was provided. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 23, 2013
Last Updated:
August 19, 2013