The Truth About What Stress-Eating Does to Your Body

"Comfort eating is something that can actually comfort you."

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At UCLA, there’s a lab that zigs where others zag. It’s the Dieting, Stress, and Health Laboratory — DISH, for short — and inside, researchers look into the what and why of modern eating, and how stress affects their eating. There are studies on fat-shaming and weight stigma, as well as intersectional research into socioeconomic factors and racial health disparities.

Dr. A. Janet Tomiyama is the director of the UCLA’s DISH lab, and points to their findings that reject popular opinion about American eating habits.

“In general, my lab has a bit of a contrarian streak,” Tomiyama tells Inverse. “For example, we’ve published research showing that low-calorie dieting doesn’t actually work for long-term weight loss. If anything, it is a physical stressor that can cause you to gain more weight.

“We’ve also published research showing that stigmatizing people because of their weight isn’t going to work or motivate them. Instead, that backfires and increases fat-promoting stress hormones that cause a person to eat more.

“We have also found that comfort eating is something that can actually comfort you — so sometimes our research is really good news for people.”

The following interview with Tomiyama has been edited and condensed.

Inverse: What motivated you to get into this area of work?

Tomiyama: My interest was initially in studying anorexia nervosa. It’s one of the most lethal mental disorders, and, as a person who really loves food and loves to eat, I didn’t understand it and found it fascinating. I studied it for about two or three years but came to realize that, while it’s important to study and is tragic, it affects a really tiny percentage of our population.

I realized that I wanted my research to have a really big impact — and studies show that over half of the United States is trying to lose weight at any given time. People really struggle with their relationship with food. I decided to take on the challenge of understanding eating in general.

By virtue of what we’re like as people, did this link between eating and mental health naturally begin to show up in your research?

I’m not a clinical psychologist, but I do study stress because it’s a condition that is psychological at first but then has all these waterfall effects on your body’s physiology. The way we think and feel can actually go on to change levels of hormones in our body, and if someone is experiencing something stressful, then that comes with big implications for their health.

All my research operates through the lens of stress. Stress eating is very interesting because stress not only changes chemicals in your body, but it also affects your brain in a way that makes you want to eat more.

Is there an understanding as to why stress would make us want to eat more?

The explanation starts at a really basic evolutionary level. When we were stressed in our past, most of those stressors were physical stressors. In our hunter-gatherer history, the stressors we were encountering were things like chasing down a woolly mammoth. Our bodies developed a system to help us survive these physical stressors, but in 2019, most of the stresses we experience are psychological. You’re still worried — but you’re probably sitting in a room.

However, your body still reacts like it needs to prepare for physical stress, and that drives our eating behavior.

What do you hope that people apply your research to in their lives?

It so happens that this interview has come at a weird time in my research path because we have new findings that aren’t published yet but sort of bend away from other research that I’ve done.

I’ll explain: One thing that people don’t know is that it’s not just humans who stress eat. For example, if you give rats access to comfort foods, like Oreo cookies, they actually show lower levels of physiological stress. This is true across multiple species, and it’s seemed clear that this is the case for humans.

I’ve been gathering evidence that shows people who are stressed do more stress eating, and, often times, they have demonstrably lower levels of stress when they do. But we recently ran a study where we randomly assigned stress people to three groups: One that ate unhealthy comfort foods, like ice cream, another that ate healthy food, like apple slices, and another that was just asked to watch an episode of How It’s Made.

And what we found was that all three groups showed the same levels of recovery from stress. It’s possible that one take-home message from this is that a strawberry is just as comforting as a strawberry milkshake. But the other possibility is the idea that perhaps we don’t need food at all to reduce our stress. Perhaps all that matters is that we distract ourselves from our stress, and, no matter what we choose to do, we’ll end up in pretty much the same place. That’s something that I think people can take and use.

Do you or any members of your lab ever take what’s learned in the lab and apply it to life?

First of all, nobody in our lab diets. That doesn’t mean that we don’t eat healthy, but we don’t cut calories drastically in order to lose weight. We’ve learned that this sort of diet triggers stress hormones and the feeling of stress.

I hope this would be true at any lab, but there’s no fat-shaming in our lab, whether that’s about another person or yourself. We don’t allow any negative body talk. Something that is also important to me is to have undergraduate students working in the lab, as well as a research staff, that represent all sorts of body types and shapes.

Do you have any particular insight on the best ways a person can have a positive relationship with food?

It’s really hard. There are so many factors at play — starting with food companies that engineer these foods that hijack your brain’s reward system. There are also all sorts of things conspiring you to have a weird and fraught relationship with food. For example, we have a study that shows that if you’re on a diet and you eat unhealthy by indulging in something really high calorie with your friends, you can actually feel closer to them.

My research would show that being too restrictive with food is just going to backfire. I haven’t personally researched this, but there’s also evidence that it can be positive to ditch this idea of good food versus bad food, and focus on how healthy and happy you feel when you are eating.

This question makes me think of something funny that happens all the time. My lab is called the “Diet, Stress, Health Lab,” and because of this, people think I’m really pro-dieting, so they get weird when they eat lunch with me. If they have anything unhealthy on their tray, they are like, Oh, I shouldn’t be doing this — I’m having lunch with you!

I’m always reminding people that what I want is the opposite: I would love for them to eat what they feel like eating.

This Week’s Chill Icon

This week’s chill icon is Kensli Davis and the Dairy Queen baker who made her this sweet cake. Davis’ story went all the way from her Facebook to CNN. Basically, what happened was that her mom tried to get Davis a Moana cake for her 25th birthday. The baker heard marijuana and delivered this treasure. When the mistake was realized, the baker apologized for their art, but it was without need: Davis and her family realized the first cake “was so good, we weren’t worried about it.”

Moana or marijuana?
"Well needless to say these people thought she said marijuana 😂😂😂 That ice cream cake was still good though."

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.