Trying to eat our way to stress relief

In the United States, the majority of adults are overweight or obese, increasing their risk for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.1 Obesity is a major contributor to preventive death in the U.S. and can raise morbidity risks associated with chronic diseases, such as hypertension, stroke, respiratory problems and various cancers.2 Research also shows connections between stress and food. People tend to seek high-calorie, high-fat foods during periods of stress, though in fact, when people are stressed, their bodies store more fat than when they are relaxed.3 While many factors contribute to the nation’s weight challenges, the Stress in America™ survey suggests that stress influences our eating habits.

Many adults report engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors as a result of stress and say that these behaviors can lead to undesirable consequences, such as feeling sluggish or lazy and feeling bad about their bodies.

Thirty-eight percent of adults say they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress. Half of these adults (49 percent) report engaging in these behaviors weekly or more.

Thirty-three percent of adults who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say they do so because it helps distract them from stress.

Twenty-seven percent of adults say they eat to manage stress and 34 percent of those who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say this behavior is a habit.

In the past month, 30 percent of adults report skipping a meal due to stress. Forty-one percent of adults who report skipping a meal due to stress report doing it weekly or more.

The majority of adults (67 percent) who report skipping meals due to stress attribute it to a lack of appetite. Twenty-six percent say they skipped a meal because they did not have time to eat.

After having overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods, half of adults (49 percent) report feeling disappointed in themselves, 46 percent report feeling bad about their bodies and more than one-third (36 percent) say they feel sluggish or lazy. After skipping meals due to stress, 24 percent say they feel sluggish or lazy and 22 percent report being irritable.

Teens display similar eating habits as adults

Like adults, teens also report consequences of unhealthy eating behaviors .When it comes to their eating habits under stress, teens do not appear to be doing any better than adults. One example can be seen in the number of teens and adults who skip breakfast. While breakfast has long been credited as the meal that aids in concentration throughout the day, research also suggests that eating breakfast can reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes, along with other metabolic conditions, such as hypertension and obesity.4 Yet half of teens (50 percent) who have skipped a meal in the past month due to stress say the last meal they skipped was breakfast, vs. 45 percent of adults who say the same.

In the past month, 26 percent of teens say they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods because of stress. More than half of these teens (52 percent) engage in these behaviors weekly or more.

Among teens who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress, 33 percent say they did so because it helps distract them from what was causing them stress.

Almost one-quarter (24 percent) of teens report eating to manage stress and 37 percent of those who overate or ate unhealthy foods because of stress say that it is a habit.

Thirty-nine percent of teens report skipping meals due to stress weekly or more.

The majority of teens (67 percent) who report skipping meals due to stress say it was because of a lack of appetite and 25 percent say it was because they did not have time to eat.

Like adults, teens also report consequences of unhealthy stress-related eating behaviors. After overeating or eating unhealthy foods, teens report feeling bad about their bodies (41 percent), disappointed in themselves (40 percent) and sluggish or lazy (39 percent). After skipping meals due to stress, 25 percent of teens report being irritable and 19 percent say they feel sluggish or lazy.

Women struggle with healthy eating behaviors

Women of every age are more likely than their male counterparts to report unhealthy eating behaviors as a result of stress.

Forty-three percent of women report having overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month due to stress, compared to 32 percent of men.

When asked why they overate or ate unhealthy foods, 30 percent of women said they could not stop themselves, compared with 19 percent of men reporting the same. What’s more, 30 percent of women, compared with 24 percent of men, say they eat to manage stress.

Thirty-six percent of women report skipping a meal in the past month due to stress compared with 23 percent of men.

Among women and men who skipped a meal, 71 percent of women and 59 percent of men say it was because they did not have an appetite.

The trend toward unhealthy eating behaviors is especially troubling among older teen girls (ages 15 to 17): 37 percent eat to manage stress, compared with 20 percent of younger teen girls (ages 13 to 14) and teen boys overall (18 percent).

Thirty-six percent of older teen girls, 22 percent of younger teen girls and 15 percent of teen boys report having skipped a meal in the past month due to stress.

When asked why they skipped a meal, 73 percent of older teen girls say they did not have an appetite.

Millennials engage in unhealthy eating behaviors due to stress

Millennials are more likely than other generations to say they eat too much or eat unhealthy foods due to stress — 50 percent say they have done so in the past month, compared to 36 percent of Gen Xers, 36 percent of Boomers and 19 percent of Matures.5 Millennials are also most likely to say they ate unhealthy foods or overate because of a food craving (62 percent vs. 52 percent of Gen Xers and 53 percent of Boomers).

Millennials are most likely to report eating to manage stress (36 percent vs. 30 percent of Gen Xers, 25 percent of Boomers and just 10 percent of Matures).

Millennials are more likely to say they skipped a meal in the past month because of stress (43 percent vs. 33 percent of Gen Xers, 24 percent of Boomers and 10 percent of Matures).

Similar numbers of Millennials, Gen Xers and Boomers say that skipping meals to manage stress is a habit (16 percent, 14 percent and 15 percent, respectively).

Millennials are most likely to report feeling sluggish or lazy after skipping a meal (28 percent), compared with 22 percent of Gen Xers and 20 percent of Boomers.

Footnotes

1 Flegal, K. M., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B. K., & Ogden, C. L. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in the distribution of body mass index among U.S. adults, 1999 – 2010. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 307 (5), 491–497. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.39

2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, Obesity Education Initiative. (1998). Clinical guidelines on the identification, evaluation and treatment of overweight and obesity in adults: The evidence report (NIH Publication No. 98-4083). Retrieved from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/obesity/ob_gdlns.pdf (PDF, 1.25MB)

3 Björntorp, P. (2001). Do stress reactions cause abdominal obesity and comorbidities? The International Association for the Study of Obesity, Obesity Reviews, 2 (2), 73–86.

4 Odegaard, A. O., Jacobs Jr., D. R., Steffen, L. M., Van Horn, L., Ludwig, D. S., & Pereira, M. A. (2013). Breakfast frequency and development of metabolic risk. Diabetes Care. doi: 10.2337/dc13-0316

5 The four generations are defined as the following: Millennials (18- to 34-year-olds), Gen Xers (35- to 48-year-olds), Boomers (49- to 67-year-olds) and Matures (68 years and older).