This study investigated experimentally whether acute stress alters food choice during a meal. The study was designed to test claims of selective effects of stress on appetite for specific sensory and nutritional categories of food and interactions with eating attitudes.
Sixty-eight healthy men and women volunteered for a study on “the effects of hunger on physiology, performance, and mood.” Eating attitudes and food preferences were measured on entry to the study. The stressed group prepared a 4-minute speech, expecting it to be filmed and assessed after a midday meal, although in fact speeches were not performed. The ad libitum meal included sweet, salty, or bland high- and low-fat foods. The control group listened to a passage of neutral text before eating the meal. Blood pressure, heart rate, mood, and hunger were measured at baseline and after the 10-minute preparatory period, when appetite for 34 foods and food intake were recorded.
Increases in blood pressure and changes in mood confirmed the effectiveness of the stressor. Stress did not alter overall intake, nor intake of, or appetite for the six food categories. However, stressed emotional eaters ate more sweet high-fat foods and a more energy-dense meal than unstressed and nonemotional eaters. Dietary restraint did not significantly affect appetitive responses to stress.
Increased eating of sweet fatty foods by emotional eaters during stress, found here in a laboratory setting, may underlie the previously reported finding that dietary restraint or female gender predicts stress-induced eating. Stress may compromise the health of susceptible individuals through deleterious stress-related changes in food choice.