New study contradicts theory that people eat junk food when stressed


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When you're approaching a deadline or dealing with unexpected problems in your life, do you turn to healthy or unhealthy food? New research presented at the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting & Expo suggests we choose whatever we usually eat when we're not stressed. 

Co-authored and presented by David Neal, a psychologist and founding partner at Empirica Research, the study supports the theory that habits control our food choices in high-pressure scenarios. In other words, when people are stressed, they tend to seek the foods they usually eat out of habit — whether that's carrot sticks or a tub of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

“Habits are 45% of daily life,” Neal said. “They cause us to disregard rational or motivational drivers and instead be cued by context, automated actions, time pressure and low self-control.”

The research involved 59 MBA students at the University of California-Los Angeles, who were asked during exam week to choose a snack. Among the choices: healthy snacks, such as fruit, nonfat yogurt, whole-wheat crackers and nuts/soy chips; or unhealthy snacks, such as candy bars, flavored popcorn and sugar cookies. Additionally, they were asked to rate the frequency of those snack choices throughout the week.

At peak stress times, like during an exam, participants were most likely to turn to their habitual snack.