Stress eating is a common problem, especially among women. When faced with daily hassles or professional stress, research has shown women eat more sweets and high-fat foods. Now, a recent study suggests a chaotic physical environment may play a role as well.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University set up two kitchens – one in standard conditions, organized and relatively quiet, and the other chaotic, messy and disorganized. Participants were assigned to one of the two rooms, asked to perform a number of tasks and provided bowls of snacks like carrots and cookies. In the end, those who were working in the chaotic kitchen consumed nearly twice as many calories in sweets than those who worked in the organized kitchen.
“Given the relationship between stress and eating, it’s not surprising that a chaotic environment may have a negative influence,” says Dr. Michelle Meeks, a family medicine physician at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill. “If you’re trying to get something done, but there are messes and obstacles in every direction, it can certainly leave you feeling frazzled and stressed.”
One of the tasks participants were asked to complete was a short writing assignment, either writing about a time they felt organized and in control or about a time when they felt out of control and chaotic. Those who wrote about a negative experience consumed more sweets than participants who wrote about a positive one, leading researchers to believe that mindset has a strong influence, as well.
“Taking control of your life, both emotionally and physically, can lead to better physical health,” says Dr. Meeks. “In a time when many adults are working full-time jobs and juggling a variety of other responsibilities like children, volunteer commitments and acting as caretakers for older relatives, it’s easy to become disorganized and stressed.”
Some research shows that more than a third of adults say they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress. Unfortunately, people report that this often leads to bad outcomes, like feeling sluggish or feeling bad about their body.
Dr. Meeks says simple changes to your routine and environment can significantly lower your stress and improve your health, and offers these suggestions:
- Spend a couple afternoons removing clutter from your living spaces. If something doesn’t serve a purpose, get rid of it. Fewer things in a room means fewer things to cause a mess.
- Prepare for your day the night before. Choose your clothes, plan your meals and get to bed at a reasonable hour. Starting the day relaxed, rested and in control can set the stage for the rest of your day.
- Avoid stress eating by stocking your refrigerator with healthy ready-to-eat choices. Make raw vegetables, yogurt and hard boiled eggs as easily accessible as your sweets once were.