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Stress-Eating and Creating Space for Healthier Decision-Making

When you’re stressed, do you notice yourself reaching for your favorite snack, even when you are not really hungry? A recent study may help explain why this happens, and how we can ‘hack’ our own psychology to reduce cravings and eat in a healthier way.

Lenny Vartanian and colleagues developed a study in 2016 to test the role of mindset in various eating environment scenarios. 101 female students were placed in either a normal, standard-condition kitchen, or a ‘chaotic’ kitchen, which was disorganized and included an experimenter purposefully making loud, disruptive noises during the trial. The participants in the study were also asked to complete a short writing prompt about either a time they felt particularly out of control, a time they felt particularly in control, or about the last lecture they attended (this was used as a control). Following this, the participants were asked to try as many cookies, carrots, or crackers as they wanted. The bowls containing the snacks were weighed after the experiment to determine how much of each type of snack each participant ate.

The study determined that, in a chaotic environment, those who wrote about a time they felt in-control prior to eating ate significantly less cookies (38 kilocalories) compared to those who wrote about feeling out-of-control (103 kilocalories). This could be explained by the idea that self-control is a limited resource, and when our mental capacity is used to cope with stressors in our environment, we have less self-control available to dedicate to other tasks, such as choosing to eat healthily (Muraven and Baumeister 2000). Overall, more cookies were eaten in the stressful compared to the non-stressful environments, but there was no significant difference in consumption of carrots or crackers in the stressful or non-stressful environments. This makes sense as people tend to eat more sweets when they’re stressed as compared to other foods, likely due to the high fat and sugar content (Oliver et al., 2000).

The research done by Vartanian and colleagues provides evidence that stressful environments full of noise, distractions, and clutter can lead us to eat more unhealthily. So, preparing a quiet place to eat may help us to curb stress-eating behaviors. If this is not possible, the negative effects of a stressful environment can be countered by taking a moment to reflect on a time when you felt in-control prior to eating, as a form of re-centering. Sometimes, it may seem like our actions or habits are reflexive, but with a little bit of conscious effort, we can reframe our mindset to overcome our more primal instincts and become healthier versions of ourselves.

Works Cited

  1. Muraven, Mark, and Roy F. Baumeister. “Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle?” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 126, no. 2, 2000, pp. 247–259., doi:10.1037/0033-2909.126.2.247.

  2. Oliver, Georgina, et al. “Stress and Food Choice: A Laboratory Study.” Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 62, no. 6, 2000, pp. 853–865., doi:10.1097/00006842-200011000-00016.

  3. Vartanian, Lenny R, et al. “Clutter, Chaos, and Overconsumption: The Role of Mind-Set in Stressful and Chaotic Food Environments.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2016, doi:10.2139/ssrn.2711870.

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