David Neal, Ph.D, the founding partner of Empirica Research and a psychologist who researched and co-authored a new, revealing study about people who eat during times of stress, presented his findings in Chicago at the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting & Expo.
Neal’s findings contradict conventional beliefs about the types of foods people eat when stressed and the way people eat when they are stressed. Previously, it was believed that people who are stressed out opted for high-calorie, low-nutrient types of comfort foods. However, findings indicate that this is not the case at all. Previous beliefs indicated cravings dictated the way people ate when stressed out.
According to Neal’s study, however, “people default to what their habits are under stress, whether healthy or not.” The findings indicated that habits don’t change in high-pressure situations. And habits are cued by context, automated actions, time pressure and low self-control. They cause us to disregard rational and motivational drivers and take up approximately 45 percent of our daily lives.
This means that stress eating is not controlled by cravings, but rather by habit. We go into automatic pilot mode and fall prey to behaviors that we perform without intention or awareness. One is tempted to go out on a limb here and imagine similar findings with the way stress controls other behaviors we exhibit, not only those related to food. But for the sake of this post, lets get back to the implications for stressful eating behaviors.
Cravings tend to indicate some type of physiological basis, something that happens to us as opposed to something we have much say over. Habit, although often times quite strong and influential, is something we have developed and something that can, with determination and commitment, we can change and combat.
So, hopefully, these findings will provide many stress eaters with a bit of hope as they realize they have more of a say over their food choices than they believed they had, even when they are eating out of stress.
What screams out at me is that if we undertake efforts to practice mindfulness and learn how to over-ride behaviors that are performed out of habit; we can regain the element of choice that we have lost. We can practice being present and in the moment so we can opt for foods that are more nutritional and lower in empty calories. We can reach for a healthful snack that is high in satisfying protein rather than empty carbohydrates that pack on unwanted weight and still leave us wanting more.
So, not only does David Neals’ new study help empower us by reminding us of our choices and options, but it also validates what many of us have already experienced in our own efforts in achieving a healthier, lower weight.
By decreasing poor food choices from our environment, so we can’t reach for them as often at times of stress, we can help ourselves develop healthier habits that won’t sabotage our weight-loss efforts when stress overtakes us.
I’m a licensed clinical social worker and have worked extensively as a counselor with children, adolescents, couples and families. I combine professional experience in the mental health field along with my love of writing to provide insight into real-life experiences and relationships. I hope my down-to-earth approach to living a happier, more meaningful life is easy to understand and just as easy to start implementing right away for positive results!