Whether it’s ice cream, fries, or some other comfort food, most of us have that one thing we crave when stress hits. It’s not that we’re eating it all the time, only when we’re feeling frazzled and feel like we “deserve” or “need” it. If we’re eating healthily the rest of the time, what’s the harm in indulging in some stress eating now and then?
The harm, as it turns out, is an average of 11 extra pounds a year. A new study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry shows that stress eating alone can lead to weight gain. Eating just one high-fat meal after experiencing one or more stressful events the day before can slow women’s metabolism enough to add more than ten pounds a year.
“The question we were asking is whether stress affects metabolism, and I was so surprised at the magnitude of the effect,” Dr. Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology at The Ohio State University and lead author of the study, told Today, adding that she wasn’t expecting to see such dramatic results.
Almost 60 women participated in the study. They visited with the research team twice over the course of the study, receiving either a meal high in saturated fat or a meal high in sunflower oil (a monosaturated fat). The high-fat meal had 930 calories and 60 grams of fat, which is similar to the calories and fat in a double burger with medium fries – the kind of meal a stress-eater may consume.
Metabolic rate, blood sugar levels, triglycerides, insulin, and cortisol levels were all measured in the participants after they ate the meal. The participants who reported one or more stressors — arguments with family or friends, challenges at work, trouble with kids — during the 24 hours before the meal burned 104 fewer calories than women who did not report stress after eating the high-fat meal.
“We know from other data that we’re more likely to eat the wrong foods when we’re stressed, and our data say that when we eat the wrong foods, weight gain becomes more likely because we are burning fewer calories,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.