The Hurricane Florence Effect: What Causes Stress Eating?

How the stress of natural disasters impacts mindsets and meals.

Posted Sep 16, 2018

Twitter has lit up over the past week with stories about Hurricane Florence. Wind speed, brave rescues, and communities pulling together to help affected residents. There has also been mention, however, of what we can call the #HurricaneFlorence effect on appetite—stress eating. What is it about worry, anxiety, and stress that make us hungry? Or does eating during times of stress really have anything to do with hunger?  

Disaster-Disrupted Routines and Resolve

If, God forbid, you find yourself in the path of a hurricane (and you intend to stay and ride it out), there are many good articles advising you what foods to stock up on.[i]  From bottled water, to canned meat and tuna, to peanut butter and crackers, strategic grocery shopping is essential.  

But when your stress level is rising at the same rate as the water level outside, there is more to the equation than diet and nutrition. You might burn through your provisions faster than you need to, not because you are hungry, but because you are stressed.  

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Huffington Post ran a piece aptly entitled “The Sandy 15: Stress Eating During The Superstorm,” in which residents in and around affected communities admitted their unusually impulsive buying habits.[ii] Staring at partially empty shelves in grocery stores that had not fully restocked, one woman admitted that her purchases included Winter Oreos with red cream topped with snowmen that she suddenly “had to try,” as well as chips and salsa. Other post-hurricane indulgence confessions included beloved mac and cheese, fried potatoes, and cookies.

The Huffington Post article noted that the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy involved the common experience of “rather extraordinary eating habits.” Sure, they recognize that many people baked and cooked to pass the time. But the article also noted that people suddenly found themselves staring at a pantry stocked with food items they typically would not recognize on their shelves. Why?  

The Comfort of Comfort Food

Many people can relate to the temptation of succumbing to the guilty pleasure of a carb-fest. The phenomenon of comfort food eating as a form of self-medication is well documented. 

Jordan D. Troisiet al. (2015) define comfort foods as foods people eat in response to specific circumstances, in order to feel pleasant or psychologically comfortable.[iii]  They note that many people eat comfort food in an effort to escape negative emotion, even though the effectiveness of such attempted self-medication is questionable. 

But the question is, why do people who are not usually prone to such indulgence, give in to such eating patterns in the wake of natural disasters?   

Skip the Salad, Pass the Doritos: Situational Stress Eating

We have all been there. Many people eat when they are under pressure. Researchers, who have been studying this phenomenon for years, have some answers. 

Adrian Meule and his colleagues (2018), studied stress eating and level of perceived stress.[iv]  They found that the perception of stress moderated the link between stress eating and Body Mass Index (BMI) to the extent that elevated scores on the Salzburg Stress Eating Scale (SSES) were significantly correlated with higher Body Mass Index in people who were under high perceived stress, but not in people with low perceived stress.

But not everyone reacts to stress by eating more. Other research by Adrian Meule et al. (2018) indicates that some people eat more when under stress, while others eat less.[v] And there are other methods of stress relief than food.  

Meule et al. reveal that smokers often report using smoking to cope with stress, and on average, have a lower body weight than nonsmokers. In the smoking study, Meule et al. concluded that smokers are more likely to light up a cigarette in response to stress than decide to eat, resulting in decreased body weight manifested in smokers under stress. After quitting, however, prior smokers may be more likely to gain weight because they may, like their nonsmoking counterparts, turn to eating rather than smoking as a response to stress.  

Returning to Normalcy

Our prayers are with the communities affected by Hurricane Florence as they heal and rebuild. As the residents slowly regain a sense of normalcy, research and practical experience predicts their diets and nutritional regimes will as well.  




[iii]Jordan D. Troisi, Shira Gabriel, Jaye L. Derrick, and Alyssa Geisler, “Threatened Belonging and Preference for Comfort Food among the Securely Attached,” Appetite 90, 2015, 58–64.

[iv]Adrian Meule, Julia Reichenberger, and Jens Blechert,“Development and Preliminary Validation of the Salzburg Stress Eating Scale,” Appetite 120, 2018, 442–448. 

[v]Adrian Meule, Julia Reichenberger, and Jens Blechert (2018) Smoking, Stress Eating, and Body Weight: The Moderating Role of Perceived Stress, Substance Use & Misuse 53, no. 13, 2018, 2152-2156.