Women Snack More After Stress
Women May Turn to Food for Relief From Stress
May 28, 2004
by Jennifer Warner -- WebMD Medical News

Stress and frustration may make women more vulnerable to snacking and overeating than men, according to a new study.

Researchers found women after being exposed to loud noise and frustrating work were more likely to indulge in foods such as cheese, popcorn, chocolate, and potato chips, than men exposed to the same situation.

"Although other researchers have shown that both men and women eat more during stressful periods, this is the first study to show that eating is affected in some individuals after a stress is stopped," says Laura C. Klein, assistant professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State University, in a news release.

"In daily life, people often rise to the occasion to deal with stress," says Klein. "The real window of vulnerability may be after the stress is over. For example, women exposed to a week of frustrating job stress could be especially vulnerable to overeating on the weekends."

Stress Prompts Snacking
In the study, 29 men and 34 women aged 18 to 45 who thought they were in a study on the effects of noise on performance were divided into three groups and asked to solve math and geometry problems shown to them on slides.

The study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

In the first group, a speaker placed near the participants blasted them with noise as loud as a jackhammer at random intervals as they tried to complete the task. The participants were shown a button that could turn the noise off, but none of them did.

In the second group, everything was the same except that the participants were not told about the button, and the third (control) group was not exposed to noise at all as they completed the tasks.

After the problem-solving session, the participants were asked to sit alone in a room for 12 minutes before the next task and were offered a snack tray containing pretzels, potato chips, Sonoma Jack cheese, white chocolate, jelly beans, and unsalted, air-popped popcorn.

Then they were asked to solve two maze puzzles, but one of the two puzzles was impossible to solve. Researchers used the number of times the participants attempted to solve the unsolvable puzzle as an indicator of how persistent or frustrated the person was after the previous problem-solving session.

The study showed women who gave up quickly and were more frustrated after the first stressor ate significantly more bland food, such as popcorn; they also ate more chocolate, cheese, and potato chips, than the women who were not frustrated. Frustration levels were also marginally associated with the total calories, amount of food, and fat grams consumed. Women who were more frustrated ate more on all counts.

However, researchers found men ate the same amount of snacks regardless of the group they were in, and exposure to the noise also increased their persistence on the maze task.

Researchers say the findings show that the noise may have engendered feelings of competition among the men and a desire to assert control or to win (i.e., to successfully complete the tracing task). It also is possible that stressor exposure produced a need for distraction in men, that the tracing task provided an outlet for that need, or that men found the tracing task to be a coping strategy whereas women did not. But women did not find the maze task to be an effective coping mechanism.

The study also showed that women who knew about the off button for the noise and had more perceived control over the situation tended to snack less. But perceived control had no effect on the men's snacking behavior.

"These findings suggest that for women, having perceived control over the stressor, even if it is not exercised, is an important modifier of the psychological and appetitive responses after a stressor has ceased," write the researchers.

If those results translate to real-life situations, researcher say lack of real or apparent control over stress may cause women to over-indulge in bland or high-fat foods and decrease their persistence in future tasks.