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Overeating is a Coping Mechanism People Develop in Response to Stress


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A new study sought to find a correlation between overeating and stress. Leeds University scientists took the Maastricht Stress Test to find the link, Tribune reported.

Dr. Giles Yeo, a member of the Trust Me, I’m a Doctor Team, took the test that involved solving rapid math questions. After taking the test, Yeo was asked to place his hand in ice-cold water to measure his blood sugar levels.

Fight or flight mode

Placing Yeo’s hand in ice-cold water was done to control blood sugar levels which normalized swiftly. However, on a stressful day, when Yeo repeated the test, it took three hours for his blood sugar level to normalize. The explanation was that his body went into a fight or flight mode.

When the body is in that mode, it feels attacked and releases an excess of glucose into the bloodstream. The pancreas then pumps out insulin to flush out the excess glucose to normalize blood sugar levels. If the level of insulin goes up and blood sugar level drops, it would cause hunger and lack of sleep.

People deprived of sleep consumed an average of 385 kcal, or roughly the calorie count of a large muffin, according to a study made by King’s College London. In another research, when kids between the ages three and four years old were made to stay awake longer than children should, they acquire 20 percent more calories than usual. But these are mostly empty calories such as sugars and carbohydrates.

Hormone levels are the culprit

Another research by the John Hopkins and the Mount Sinai Icahn Schools of Medicine in the US found that the body’s hormone levels are to blame for undoing a healthy eating plan as the day goes. The researchers asked 32 overweight adults between the ages of 15 and 50 to fast overnight. At 9 AM, they consumed a liquid meal and fasted again and had another liquid meal at 4 PM. Some of the participants have binge eating disorder and some without the condition, Body and Soul reported.

Two hours after each meal, the participants underwent a stress test by placing one hand in a bucket of cold water for two minutes during which their facial expressions were recorded. Thirty minutes after the stress test, the participants were offered a food and drink buffet. It was made up of pizza, cookies, chips, candy, and water.  After eating, a blood test was administered to analyze the level of cortisol, ghrelin, and peptide YY in their blood.

After the afternoon meal, the participants had higher levels of the ghrelin. They also had increased hunger in the afternoon which can derail healthy eating even if at the beginning of the day they had good eating intentions and fullness levels. In the evening, their levels of PYY, the hormone linked to reducing the appetite, was lower.

The researchers concluded that stress had a greater link to ghrelin levels later in the day, causing people to make poor food choices as the day goes on. To deal with the situation, the scientists suggested eating more whole foods and foods rich in nutrients earlier in the day so the body will become satiated as the day goes on and avoid the hormones wreaking havoc on good dietary intentions.

Susan Carnell, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine, said their findings suggested that evening is a high-risk time for overeating, especially for people who are stressed and prone to binge eating, Futurity reported.

Given this knowledge, people can initiate steps to reduce their risk of overeating by eating earlier in the day or seeking other ways to deal with stress, Carnell said. She noted that only people with binge-eating disorder showed lower overall fullness at night and lower initial ghrelin levels in the morning compared to people without the binge-eating disorder.

Reasons for overeating

Jenny Morris, a behavioral psychology researcher, listed five reasons why people overeat without realizing it, Daily Mail reported.

The visual aspect of a meal, such as portion size, influences how much people eat. An experiment found that participants whose bowls were covertly refilled ate 73 percent more soup than those who refilled the bowls themselves.

When eating, people usually get used to the taste of food, but when a varied plate of food is eaten, switching between the foods continues to renew the palatability. If people are given multiple different foods, they ate four times as much food.

Being distracted by other things, such as watching TV, working, or catching up on social media, also contributes to overeating. When distracted, the diner is less aware of becoming full and needs to eat more food to reduce hunger.

Alcohol and eating with others are also factors behind overeating. One suggestion to reduce overeating is to use a smartphone-based attentive eating app that involves taking a photo of the food, answering questions, and being reminded about food consumed.

[메디컬리포트=​Vittorio Hernandez 기자]


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