The study in the Journal of Applied Psychology is one of the first to investigate how psychological experiences at work shape our eating patterns.
“Employees who have a stressful workday tend to bring their negative feelings from the workplace to the dinner table, as manifested in eating more than usual and choosing junk food instead of healthy food,” said study co-author Chu-Hsiang Chang, a psychology professor at Michigan State University.
But she added: “Sleep helped people deal with their stressful eating after work. When workers slept better the night before, they tended to eat better when they experienced stress the next day.”
So why does stress make us want to stuff our faces? Professor Chang said people often used food to relieve and regulate a bad mood, because it’s in our nature to instinctively avoid negative feelings in favour of good ones.
To add insult to injury, when you experience stress, your body reacts by storing fat around the middle. It does this because we haven’t evolved much since caveman times, when stress meant having to escape from a sabre tooth tiger. Your body would need to store the extra energy somewhere it is easy to access – your tummy.
In my practice, I see many clients who are dealing with the unwelcome side effects of leading a modern-day stressful life. Aside from working on creating meal plans that help your body deal more effectively with stress, I also work with clients to create healthy lifestyle habits, so they’re less likely to reach for the biscuits when the going gets tough.
Here’s a little exercise you might try for yourself at home.
- What is the cause of my stress? (thoughts, worries, events, financial)
- How do I respond to stress? (become tense/irritable, eat, exercise, worry, etc.)
- How much of the stress am I in control of? Identify the parts you have control over and decide what you can change (e.g. maybe to avoid the stressor)
- Am I thinking about the situation accurately? Do I have the skills to deal with it? Do I have enough time? Can I get someone to help me? Are my standards unachievably high? Have I made a plan?
- Are my negative thoughts accurate? Are they really true? What would a friend say about them? Replace them with more positive thoughts that are honest, believable and specific.
A good nutrition and lifestyle plan can make an enormous difference when it comes to helping you deal with stress and its negative effects on your health and your waistline.