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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: Linking Foods, Behavior and Metabolism to Promote a Healthy Body Weight

Location: Obesity and Metabolism Research Unit

Title: Having your cake and eating it too: A habit of comfort food may link chronic social stress exposure and acute stress-induced cortisol hyporesponsiveness.

Authors
item Tryon, Matthew -
item DeCant, Rashel
item Laugero, Kevin

Submitted to: Physiology and Behavior
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: February 25, 2013
Publication Date: N/A

Interpretive Summary: Stress has been tied to changes in eating behavior and food choice. The association between chronic stress, food choice, and food intake were studied in 41 middle age (41 to 52 years old) women. The salivary cortisol response to an acute psychological stress challenge was examined to assess how these women respond to acute stress (acute stress reactivity). Furthermore, chronic stress exposure was assessed by the Wheaton Social Stress Index questionnaire. During two lab visits, women were provided with a snack food buffet containing a wide range of low calorie and high calorie foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, candy, cookies, cake). Women reporting higher chronic stress and exhibiting low cortisol reactivity to the acute stress task consumed significantly more calories from chocolate cake on both lab visits. Chronic stress in the low cortisol reactor group was also positively related to total fat mass, regional fat percentage, and stress-induced negative mood. Independent of the response to the acute stress challenge, women reporting more chronic stress in their lives ate significantly less fruits and vegetables from the snack food buffet. However, this association between chronic stress and fruit and vegetable intake only applied to women in the study who were 45 years and older (45 – 52). Results are the first to directly demonstrate how the interplay between chronic and acute psychological stress influences food intake and food choice in humans. Results suggest an increased risk for stress eating in some persons experiencing chronic stress and imply that a habit of eating comfort food while under chronic psychological stress may lead to an impaired ability to react to acute stress with typical increases in cortisol.

Technical Abstract: Stress has been tied to changes in eating behavior and food choice. Previous studies in rodents have shown that chronic stress increases palatable food intake which, in turn, increases mesenteric fat and inhibits acute stress-induced hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity. The effect of chronic stress on eating behavior in humans is less understood, but it may be linked to HPA responsivity. The purpose of this study was to investigate the influence of chronic social stress and acute stress reactivity on food choice and food intake. Forty-one women (BMI = 25.9 ± 5.1 kg/m2, age range = 41 to 52 years) were subjected to the Trier Social Stress Task or a control task (nature movie) to examine HPA responses to an acute laboratory stressor and then invited to eat from a buffet containing low- and high- calorie “comfort” snacks. Women were also categorized as high chronic stress or low chronic stress based on Wheaton Social Stress Index scores. Women reporting higher chronic stress and exhibiting low cortisol reactivity to the acute stress task consumed significantly more calories from chocolate cake on both stress and control visits. Chronic stress in the low cortisol reactor group was also positively related to total fat mass, regional fat percentage, and stress-induced negative mood. Further, women reporting high chronic stress consumed significantly less vegetables, but only in those aged 45 years and older. Chronic stress in women within the higher age category was positively related to total calories consumed at the buffet, stress-induced negative mood and food craving. Our results suggest an increased risk for stress eating in persons with a specific chronic stress signature and imply that a habit of comfort food may link chronic social stress and acute stress-induced cortisol hyporesponsiveness.

Last Modified: 10/24/2014
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