It probably comes as no surprise to learn that stress can have a significant impact on our eating habits, leading to weight gain.
Chronic stress has been found to strongly correlate with changes in food choice (Roberts, Troop, Connan, Treasure, & Campbell, 2007; Serlachius, Hamer, & Wardle, 2007).
What is Chronic Stress?
Chronic stress can be regarded as distress due to the co-occurrence of physical and psychological pain, and subjective loss of control (Roberts, 2008).
Roberts et al. (2007) studied 71 women with a mean age of 43 years, finding 56% of participants gained weight during increased distress periods. The study of this group showed a significant reduction in dietary restraint was associated with increased eating behaviour and higher anxiety and depression.
These findings are similar to Serlachius et al. (2007), who reported 55% of the 268 university students between 18 and 25 years gained weight, and this was found to be associated with higher levels of perceived distress in these women.
The age differences of the participants in these two studies suggest a positive correlation between increasing age and body weight during times of high distress (Roberts, 2008).
How Does Stress Impact our Food Choices?
However, increases in body weight may also be due to changes in food choice preferences towards more high energy snacks, focusing on convenience and unnatural content food choices over healthy foods (Oliver, Wardle, & Gibson, 2000).
Zellner et al. (2006) investigated 34 female participants with a mean age of 22 years, finding that when distressed, women choose foods they might normally avoid, such as those that are sweet, high caloric and high in fat.
The findings from two recent studies (Roberts et al., 2007; Serlachius et al., 2007) indicate that 65-85% of women are at risk of stress-induced changes to their eating behaviour, while men were more likely to use other oral behaviours when distressed such as alcohol and smoking (Torres & Nowson, 2007).
Food choice motivation may change during times of chronic stress/distress when parents select food for their children with food allergies or high needs children.
Since high levels of distress are associated with impaired performance, it is plausible that deteriorated performance may hinder a parents’ motivation to choose food, decreasing the parents’ abilities to effectively manage their child’s allergies (Gillespie, Woodgate, Chalmers, & Watson, 2007; Mandell et al., 2005).
Zellner et al. (2006) reported that stress can induce a subjective sense of loss of control in an adult’s diet, which causes changes in food choice. It is plausible that if parents lose control of their diet when distressed, they may also lose control of their children’s diet.
Understanding predictors of stress-induced changes in eating behaviour is important, as stress can trigger relapses into accidental selection of the food allergen, leading to outcome symptoms from the allergen.
Psychologists can work with individuals or families with high needs and those experiencing stress. Coping techniques can be practised in order to lower stress in parents so as food choices may be more amenable to a child with allergies. Furthermore, psychologists may work with nutritionalists and dietitians to guide individuals or families toward greater wellbeing and a healthier lifestyle.
Author: Cassandra Gist, BPsych (Hons), MPsych, MAPS.
Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist has a Masters in Health Psychology, and is able to treat clients aged from two years old right through to adulthood. She is experienced in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, as well as children and families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Cassandra Gist, try Online Booking – Loganholme or Online Booking – Mt Gravatt. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129, or Vision Psychology (Mt Gravatt) on (07) 3088 5422.