When the Stress Is Acute Stress, Eating May Be Inevitable

Eating something to feel calmer can be a simple therapeutic.

Posted Jan 12, 2021

“I must have gained three pounds in three hours,” a friend shared. “As I watched the mob taking over the Capitol, I started to munch on my stash of cookies that I hide for eating emergencies. This qualified as one.”

She was referring to the events taking place on January 6.

“I consider myself a pretty disciplined eater and almost never give into mindless snacking, but I am not sure I even realized how much I was eating. My eyes were on the television screen, not on how many cookies my fingers were shoveling into my mouth. I wasn’t hungry, but I desperately needed to get my adrenaline down. I was shaking with anxiety.”

Her snacking, although precipitated by political events unique in American history, was not unique as an eating event. Turning to food, especially sweet carbohydrates, is well known both among emotional eaters, and those who study them.

The eating is not driven by hunger and, as described in a study done several years earlier, may follow a meal adequate to satisfy hunger for several hours. In this study, both normal and obese subjects were given lunch and told to eat until they were full. Subsequently, the effect of psychological stress or its absence on snack intake was tested. The subjects whose level of anxiety rose in response to the stressful tests consumed significantly more sweet carbohydrates than they did under controlled, non-stressful conditions.

In a sense, my friend was experiencing in real life what these subjects were experiencing in a laboratory situation; i.e. psychological discomfort precipitating snacking. But why do some (maybe many) people turn to food when they are stressed?  Are they using food as a form of self-medication? And will any food work?

An experiment to answer this question asked volunteers to follow two different diets. One was high in protein and very low in carbohydrate (similar to a modified KETO diet), and one high in carbohydrate, but with moderate levels of protein. The diets were assigned in a random order.

The volunteers were then subjected to a laboratory situation that caused them to be stressed while on each diet and their moods, cognitive function, and cortisol levels tested. There were significant differences in both the physiological and psychological responses to stress.

When the volunteers were on the high-carbohydrate, low-protein diet they did not show a stress-induced increase in depression, decrease in energy, and elevation of cortisol levels that they showed while on the high protein/low carbohydrate diet. Blood tests following the high-carbohydrate diet indicated an increase in the level of the amino acid tryptophan in the brain, and a subsequent increase in the brain neurotransmitter serotonin. This was not found on the high-protein diet. The authors suggest that the “calmer” response of the subjects on the high-carbohydrate diet may have been due to the serotonin.

One might infer from this that the reason people seek out high-carbohydrate/high-fat foods when stressed is that they do feel calmer and more in control. However, carbohydrates do not have instructions on how to eat them to relieve stress. Nor do they have warnings to avoid carbohydrates processed with fat that add calories, but not comfort, or carbohydrates with protein that prevents serotonin from being made. The instructions do not say that if the carbohydrate food is eaten on an empty stomach, it will be digested rapidly, and the easing of stress will then follow. There is no “dose“ given on a box of cornflakes or breadsticks telling the stressed eater that only 30 grams of a fat-free or very low-fat carbohydrate needs to be eaten, nor is there a warning that continuing to eat beyond the 30 grams of carbohydrate will result only in too many calories being consumed.

The absence of such information causes many stressed eaters like my friend to eat a high-fat carbohydrate (cookies) and instead of waiting after one or two cookies are eaten, to continue eating until she feels better. She is like someone who has a bad headache and starts to take a painkiller like Tylenol but instead of taking the recommended dose and waiting for it to take effect, keeps taking one after the other until the headache goes away (or she goes to the ER).

Sometimes acute stress makes it impossible to eat. When the pilot says that the passengers are going to be experiencing severe turbulence and a rough landing, very few people look for a snack. If a loved one is rushed to the emergency room, fear and worry of the family does not lead to rushing to the ER vending machine for a bag of chips. A phone call starting with “I have some bad news,” rarely leads to searching for ice cream in the freezer.

But sometimes, as happened last week, when the stress is sudden, unexpected, with an uncertain outcome, you are left with an urgent need to calm down, to dampen agitation, and to soothe anger. A small carbohydrate snack won’t make the stressful situation go away, but will make it a little more bearable.