Why We Are More Likely to Reach for Fritos Than Fruit in Disasters' Wake
Twitter has been lit up over the past week with stories about Hurricane Florence. Wind-speed, brave rescues, and communities pulling together to help affected residents. There has also been mention, however, of what we can call the #HurricaneFlorence effect on appetite — stress eating.
What is it about worry, anxiety, and stress that make us hungry?
Does eating during times of stress really have anything to do with hunger?
If God forbid you find yourself in the path of a hurricane (and you intend to stay and ride it out), there are many good articles advising you what foods to stock up on. From bottled water, to canned meat and tuna, to peanut butter and crackers, strategic grocery shopping is essential.
But when your stress level is rising at the same rate as the water level outside, there is more to the equation than diet and nutrition. You might burn through your provisions faster than you need to, not because you are hungry, but because you are stressed.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (in 2012), HuffPost ran a piece aptly entitled "The Sandy 15: Stress Eating During the Superstorm," in which residents in and around affected communities admitted their unusually impulsive buying habits.
It records that staring at partially empty shelves in grocery stores that had not fully restocked, one woman admitted that her purchases included Winter Oreos with red cream topped with snowmen that she suddenly "had to try," as well as chips and salsa.
Other post hurricane indulgence confessions included beloved mac and cheese, fried potatoes, and cookies.
The Huff Post article noted that the aftermath of hurricane Sandy involved the common experience of "rather extraordinary eating habits." Sure, they recognize that many people baked and cooked to pass the time. But the article also noted that people suddenly found themselves staring at a pantry stocked with food items they typically would not recognize on their shelves. Why?
The Comfort of Comfort Food
Many people can relate to the temptation of succumbing to the guilty pleasure of a carb-fest. The phenomenon of comfort food eating as a form of self-medication is well documented.
Jordan D. Troisi and Julian W.C. Wright, in 2015, defined comfort foods as foods people eat in response to specific circumstances, in order to feel pleasant or psychologically comfortable. They note that many people eat comfort food in an effort to escape negative emotion, even though the effectiveness of such attempted self-medication is questionable.
But the question is, why do people who are not usually prone to such indulgence, give in to such eating patterns in the wake of natural disasters? Research has some answers.
Skip the Salad, Pass the Doritos: Situational Stress Eating
We have all been there. Many people eat when they are under pressure. Researchers, who have been studying this phenomenon for years, have some answers.
Adrian Meule, Julia Reichenberger and Jens Blecher, in 2018, studied stress eating and level of perceived stress. They found that the perception of stress moderated the link between stress eating and Body Mass Index (BMI) to the extent that elevated scores on the Salzburg Stress Eating Scale (SSES) were significantly correlated with higher BMI in people who were under high perceived stress, but not in people with low perceived stress.
But not everyone reacts to stress by eating more. Other research by Adrian Meule et al. (from 2018) indicates that some people eat more when under stress, while others eat less.
And there are other methods of stress relief than food. Meule et al. reveal that smokers often report using smoking to cope with stress, and on average, have a lower body weight than nonsmokers.
In the smoking study, Meule et al. concluded that smokers are more likely to light up a cigarette in response to stress than decide to eat, resulting in decreased body weight manifested in smokers under stress. After quitting, however, prior smokers may be more likely to gain weight because they may, like their nonsmoking counterparts, turn to eating rather than smoking as a response to stress.
Returning to Normalcy
Our prayers are with the communities affected by Hurricane Florence as they heal and rebuild. As the residents slowly regain a sense of normalcy, research and practical experience predicts their diets and nutritional regimes will as well.
This article was originally posted in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 3,00 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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