Women More Prone to 'Stress Eating' Than Men

But anxiety drives all to sugary, fatty foods, study finds

THURSDAY, July 13, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Women are more likely than men to develop unhealthy habits such as smoking, snacking on high-sugar, high-fat snacks, and drinking caffeine when they work long hours, a British study finds.

However, working long hours does have one beneficial effect for both women and men: They drink less alcohol.

The findings are from a University of Leeds study focused on the effects of stress on eating. The study was funded by the Economic & Social Research Council in the United Kingdom.

"Stress disrupts people's normal eating habits," researcher Dr. Daryl O'Connor said in a prepared statement. "Stress causes people to opt for unhealthy high-fat and high-sugar snacks in preference to healthier food choices. Also, people under stress eat less than usual in their main meals, including their vegetable intake, but shift their preference to high-fat/high-sugar snacks instead."

He and his colleagues studied the effects of stress on the eating habits of 422 people. The stress was caused by minor work and non-work events, such as having an argument with a colleague or friend, losing keys, missing a deadline, or having to give a presentation.

People who experienced one or more of minor stressful events reported eating many more between-meal snacks than usual but fewer portions of vegetables and a smaller main meal. The study also found that mental stress was more likely to cause people to snack than physical stress.

"Those more at risk of snacking under stress are best described as 'emotional eaters'," O'Connor said. "These individuals have higher levels of vulnerability and tend to turn to food as an escape from self-awareness. In other words, when they feel anxious or emotionally aroused or negative about themselves, they try to avoid these negative feelings by turning their attention to food."

"Our findings are disturbing in that they show stress produces harmful changes in diet and leads to unhealthy eating behaviors," O'Connor said.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about stress.

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