Stress Eating Header Image

Imagine you’ve just gotten home after a long, stressful day at work. Your co-workers slacked off and left you with an overabundance of tasks to complete, your boss reprimanded you, or maybe it was something as mundane as the internet going down and being unable to finish the day’s work. You walk into the kitchen to start dinner but find yourself craving junk food rather than a healthy, nutritious meal. The work stress you feel may be the reason for this.

Do people’s eating habits outside of work – including their weight – change because of their work environment? Does a heightened level of stress at work result in poor food choices? We surveyed 946 full-time employees to see just how much work affects their eating habits. Keep reading to see the cost of unhealthy eating, not only monetarily but also when it comes to employees’ health.

Eating Your Emotions

Emotional eating, also known as stress eating, is not an illusion. Many people use food not only to quell their cravings but also to feed their emotions. They eat when they feel anxious, depressed, or lonely. And they may even eat when they need to cope with a stressful day at work.

Infographic on Stressed Snacking

Emotional hunger can sometimes feel overwhelming, and the urge to eat can come along very quickly. It won’t be satisfied by just anything, though. In fact, the cravings that come with emotional hunger are most often for food that is comforting and provides instant satiety and satisfaction – high-fat and high-calorie foods like ice cream, pizza, and potato chips, except that you won’t feel completely satisfied. You’ll want more, and you’ll continue to eat without even realizing you are doing so.

Increased Spending?

Among survey respondents, 25% said they change their eating habits due to stress. This was more prevalent among women, along with people who were unsatisfied with their job.

Infographic on Purchasing Patterns

Emotional eating can lead to overeating during stressful periods, which not only results in consuming extra calories but also increased spending. Those who found their work environment stressful spent almost $500 more on food per year, and those who said their diets changed because of work spent an average of $780 more yearly. This includes everything from groceries and restaurant meals to fast food and snacks – most likely, money spent on food they aren’t physically hungry for.

Bad Habits

Our environment clearly influences what we eat. For example, if you’re eating fast food, you’re likely to indulge in something greasy and fried; however, if you’re eating at a restaurant that specializes in healthier foods, you’ll probably have something less caloric and more nutritious.

Infographic on Distressed Dining

But it’s not just our environment that impacts our eating decisions. Food is driven by our emotions, too. People’s eating habits can change due to the stress they are feeling, particularly when at work. Almost 47% of those surveyed reported eating more sugary food when they were stressed at work, and 43% reported overeating in general.

More women than men changed their eating habits because of work stress, with stress causing them to eat more sugary, fatty, and high-calorie foods, eat too much, or abstain from eating at all. This could be because women experience higher levels of stress in the workplace, possibly due to feeling overwhelmed or pressured from their workload.

The differences don’t just exist between women and men, though. Employees in associate or entry-level roles, as well as midlevel positions, ate more sugary food when they were stressed, whereas employees in senior-level and executive positions leaned more toward overeating.

Putting on the Pounds

It’s a domino effect. Work stress leads to overeating and/or consuming too much fat and sugar, which can lead to weight gain. The unhealthy eating habits that employees turn to when they are stressed at work might make them feel good at the moment, but ultimately, it won’t help them in the long run. Thirty-five percent of respondents were not satisfied with their unhealthy eating habits.

Infographic on Unhealthy Eating Habits

Employees gained an average of almost five pounds because of their unhealthy eating habits. Stress wasn’t the only factor, though. Those who were unsatisfied with their job also gained weight. It’s common for people to use food as a coping mechanism, eating more or less than they should when they are emotional about a situation.

Feeling pressure from your boss, managing a complicated project, juggling too many tasks at once, or not being taken seriously by your co-workers – these are stressful situations that can trigger emotional eating, and that emotional eating can trigger weight gain.

Stress causes the body to go into fight or flight mode, and hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released. This bodily response to a situation that requires immediate action actually minimizes the desire to eat. However, moments later, when that rush of adrenaline wears off, cortisol takes over, which raises your blood sugar. The more cortisol – the higher the glucose level in the body – the greater the desire to reach for unhealthy, sugary, or even fatty snacks.

Feeling (Un)Motivated

If employees are feeling so unhappy about their eating habits, why don’t they just change them? It’s not as easy as it sounds. It doesn’t matter whether people feel stressed; if they are not motivated to make better food choices, they just won’t do it. Over 65% of those surveyed said this was the main reason they did not eat more healthily.

Infographic on reasons respondents don't eat healthier

Aside from a lack of motivation, another reason stressed employees succumbed to unhealthy eating patterns was a shortage of time. Finding time to pack lunches and meal prep for the week so that you have healthier meals on hand can be time-consuming. Meal prep requires having a plan, going grocery shopping, prepping and cooking, and portioning meals into containers. Yes, it may save time in the end, but it’ll take a few hours out of your day, and in some cases, even more than one day if factoring in planning and grocery shopping.

There were also those who felt they did not have the financial resources to purchase healthier foods. People may assume anything healthy or nutritious is going to be more expensive, and they might not think they can afford to maintain a healthier, cleaner diet. While this can be true in some cases, such as with organic food, it is possible to maintain a healthy diet without breaking the bank.

Cost of Stress Eating

Stress eating isn’t something to scoff at. In fact, it can cost employees their money and health.

We found that many people spend and eat more due to heightened emotions and the stress they experience at work. However, there are many ways to combat stress, like being aware and mindful of your eating habits. By doing so, it is possible to overcome emotional eating and prevent it from getting the best of you.

Another well-known defense against stress and emotional eating is a daily dose of exercise. If working out at a public gym presents too many of its own stresses to justify a membership, can help you take out your workday frustrations from the comfort of your own home. We’ve compiled every detail you’ll need to find the perfect fitness equipment, and that’s one less thing to stress about.

Methodology and Limitations

For this project, we surveyed 946 full-time employees who worked at least 40 hours a week. Respondents ranged in age from 18 to 74 with an average age of 37 and a standard deviation of 10.5. Fifty-three percent of respondents identified as men, and 47% identified as women. 414 respondents worked in associate or entry-level positions, 437 worked in midlevel, and 95 worked in senior-level or executive positions. 611 respondents perceived their work in the past month as stressful, 99 as neither stressful nor unstressful, and 236 as unstressful. 595 respondents were satisfied with their job in the past month, 97 were neither satisfied nor unsatisfied, and 254 respondents were unsatisfied with their job.

Our data rely on self-reporting by the respondents and are merely explanatory. No statistical testing was performed. The data were not weighted.

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