Stress Eating Roundup


Stress and obesity go together like peanut butter and jelly, like nachos and cheese. They go together like two elements of a vicious cycle that is dedicated to perpetuating itself and causing endless harm.

Stress eating and comfort eating are basically the same phenomenon, described in one instance by the cause and in the other, by the effect. We feel stressed; we stuff ourselves with food; we feel comforted. We feel a negative emotion, medicate ourselves with food, and feel a positive emotion, i.e. comfort.

This coping mechanism works superbly well. Until one day, it doesn’t. A person then faces several terrible fates, ranging from loss of friends to submitting to invasive and life-changing surgery.

Almost 10 years ago, a study found teenagers’ stress levels are magnified by living with overextended and overcommitted mothers. Stressed-out fathers, for some reason, do not seem to propagate as much unhappiness. Or maybe they just spread anxiety to the moms, who pass it along secondhand, to the kids.

Writer Georgia Lund wrote about society-wide economic stress and apparently coined the term “recession obesity.” Even when they are stone broke, people want to give treats to their children, and other loved ones, and honored guests, and themselves.

From the field of neuroendocrinology, news emerged of a “stress switch” that appears to be genetically controlled, which pretty much means inescapable, at least with science in its current state.

A relevant digression

This debate, mentioned a decade ago by The New York Times writer Jennifer S. Lee, is probably still ongoing. The question is, what constitutes “comfort food”? Does a particular food cause a distinct biochemical reaction that registers on the consciousness as emotional balm? Or is it all based on the culture the person grew up in, and especially the family favorites?

A Cornell University study revealed that females tend to prefer snacky comfort foods, while men lean toward more robust home-cooked-meal types of dishes for their emotional solace. The theory is that men are reminded of their mothers’ cooking, which was infused with love. But women, who traditionally do the cooking, prefer convenient noshes because they don’t want to cook, or to be reminded of the work involved in preparation.

Cornell research also showed a noticeable gender divide in emotional motivation. In general, women use comfort food as a tool to lift them from emotional doldrums and make them feel better. For men, comfort food is most sought as an extra enhancement to make them feel better when they already feel good — like when their team wins. There are always exceptions, of course, but a man in a celebratory mood is more likely to order a steak, or a bowl of stew-thick soup.

A decade ago, it was announced that the favorite comfort food for everyone, but most emphatically for women, was ice cream. In the following years, men’s appreciation for ice cream increased, but they still devoured less of it than women. Then, a 2016 Harris poll of 2,252 adults revealed that pizza had risen to the top of the list:

Chocolate and ice cream tied for second, each garnering 7 percent, followed by mac & cheese and chips, which earned 5 percent and 4 percent respectively.

Yes, there is such a thing as pizza-flavored ice cream.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Is There Any Comfort in a $30 TV Dinner?,”, 06/23/08
Source: “Comfort foods help women when they’re blue, but increase male highs, food study finds,”, 11/15/05
Source: “America’s favorite comfort food is…,”, 01/25/16
Photo credit: TheeErin on Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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