There’s an old American tradition of feeling stress at work, coming home, and guzzling down a half-pound of M&Ms. Or at least among some of us.
But children aren’t immune to stress eating either. A new study by Pennsylvania State University and Johns Hopkins University, published in the May 2013 edition of Appetite, shows that children without hunger will nevertheless snack after experiencing stress.
In an experiment with 43 children, researchers had participants perform stress-producing actions, such as delivering a speech. The children received lunch, and then asked if they were still hungry. Afterward, researchers exited the room, leaving behind various snack foods. Children with greater stress were higher on the body-mass index, and consumed more calories during the snacking period.
The effect was present primarily only in the older participants, aged 8-9, but was dramatic. Some children consumed only 20 calories, but some ate up to 700 calories.
The key takeaway, according to co-author Lori Francis, is that children who handle stress poorly are either to likely be obese or become obese. In short, comfort food comes with a cost.
That could have implications at school, as students with a stressful day can end up taking in more calories, or making greater use of a school’s vending machines. What starts as a tough third-period exam might end as a big Dorito-laden lunch. Even though the federal government is taking some steps to increase nutrition in school foods, stress is much harder to regulate; other studies suggest that at an early age, some children might be resigned to anxiety for life.
If that thought stresses you out, avoid the Ruffles.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.