Science and Stress

In the previous post we speculated on whether children could be trained to emotionally connect with carrots. Could someone be conditioned to derive a satisfying level of comfort from healthful foods? Is it possible that the reward inherent in stress/comfort eating really has nothing to do with the ingredients, and everything to do with a connection made and preserved in the mind? In blaming junk food manufacturers for their pusher-like ways, have reformers been unfairly mistaken, all along?

Does a teenager love fast food because it is full of salt and sugar, or because his non-custodial parent always took that needy child to McDonald’s on visiting day? If people eat to cancel out stress and achieve comfort, what actually does the job? Is it chemical magic, an ecstatic reaction to sweet and more-ish tastes, both natural and engineered? Does the satisfaction derive from the energy burned off by the displacement activity of vigorous chewing?

Is it all sensory, an innate reaction to the warmth, the smoothness that recalls mother’s milk? Is it purely emotional, associative, conditioned? The miserable orphans portrayed by Charles Dickens — would they have loved gruel, if only it had been dispensed with lovingkindness?

Associate professor of psychology A. Janet Tomiyama is engaged in some interesting research. To journalist Rachel Sugar, she described “a mind hack to get people to be really calmed and soothed by strawberries, or whatever fruit.”

In rat studies of stress/comfort eating, the rats are tempted with cookies, or fat and sugar mush. The director of UCLA’s Dieting, Stress, and Health Lab told her interviewer,

I think that on a cultural level, we assume comfort eating has to be ice cream or brownies — really unhealthy stuff. Nobody’s even tried to see if we could also be comforted by a strawberry.

We’re literally doing Pavlovian classical conditioning: We’re having people do a relaxation exercise and eat fruit at the same time, and we have them do that over and over and over and over again, with the hope that eventually, just the strawberry alone will automatically elicit this relaxation response.

Not to rain on the parade, but seems like inducing people to associate strawberries with relaxation and comfort is a less-than-challenging assignment. The real test would be conditioning the subjects to obtain that relaxation response from an unsalted soda cracker, and then line up a competition between the cracker and McDonald’s fries.

What is stress?

Tomiyama defines stress as “a negative experience you feel like you can’t handle,” and suggests that uncontrollable stressors are the ones that “pack the biggest punch.” But that is not true for everyone. For every person incredibly stressed out by a fear of flying, there is probably another who relaxes into the feeling of “there’s nothing I can do about it.”

In the face of what most people would regard as horrible stress, some are weirdly energized and activated. Some just don’t care. If your house burns down and you have a second, fully furnished and equipped house, dealing with the insurance company is annoying, but might not rise to the level of stressful. Tomiyama asks,

Why doesn’t everyone have the same response? Everyone (presumably) feels stress, but some people eat, and others totally lose their appetites… We don’t know the why.

Some eat, others do not, and both responses can be interpreted as anthropologically appropriate. When we feel threatened we might eat, because food is here, and who knows when it might be again? Dialog from old movies plays in our heads. “You must eat, dear, and keep up your strength.”

On the other hand, if you’re going to have to run, you don’t want to be weighed down with extra ballast. These differences are the impetus for more upcoming research. Tomiyama says,

The best numbers we have currently are that 40 percent of people increase their eating when they’re stressed, 40 percent decrease their eating, and 20 percent stay the same. That’s really old data, so we’re actually this fall launching a new nationally representative study to see if that’s even true.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Does stress eating actually make you less stressed?,”, 11/09/18
Image credit: Visualhunt

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

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.

Food & Health Resources