Eating in Tough Times

Fiscal cliffs, high unemployment, police chases, and congressional gridlock make for good news ratings, but they’re bad for your health.

Not only can hard times increase stress and anxiety, but they can also cause your waistline to expand.

Researchers at the University of Miami found that when times get tough, we’re hardwired to seek high-calorie foods meant to keep us satisfied longer. When we believe times are difficult, we’re likely to consume 40 percent more food, the scientists found. 

“The findings of this study come at a time when our country is slowly recovering from the onslaught of negative presidential campaign ads chalked with topics such as the weak economy, gun violence, war, deep political divides, just to name a few problem areas,” lead researcher Juliano Laran, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Miami School of Business Administration, said in a press release. "Now that we know this sort of messaging causes people to seek out more calories out of a survival instinct, it would be wise for those looking to kick off a healthier new year to tune out news for a while.”

From Hunter-Gatherers to House-Dwellers

When our brains believe something bad will happen to us or our families, eons of evolution has us primed to assume resources will be scarce and that we need to bulk up. 

This trait used to come in handy when we were wandering through the woods wearing the skin of yesterday’s dinner. To survive, we learned to store fat on our bodies during times of hardship, just like a bear adds a layer of fat before hunkering down for winter hibernation.

For the majority of Americans, however, the abundance of foods around us—especially foods high in sugar and fat, but low in nutrition—and low levels of exercise mean our stores of fat don’t get burned away as quickly as they build up.

Testing Caloric Intake During Tough Times

To test how much we eat during hard times, researchers presented two groups of study participants with a single kind of M&Ms. One group was told that the secret ingredient was a higher-calorie chocolate, while the other was told the new M&Ms were lower in calories. Both were told to go gung-ho on the candies.

Researchers measured how much candy participants ate when exposed to posters with either neutral phrases or phrases depicting struggle and adversity.

While viewing the negative posters, subjects consumed close to 70 percent more of the high-calorie candy versus the low-calorie option. People viewing neutral phrases didn’t consume any significant amount of candy. 

“It is clear from the studies that taste was not what caused the reactions, it was a longing for calories,” Laran said. “These findings could have positive implications for individuals in the health care field, government campaigns on nutrition, and companies promoting wellness. And, certainly beware of savvy food marketers bearing bad news.” 

The study was published last week in the journal Psychological Science.

To Keep Your Waist Trim, Keep Your Stress Low

Besides seeking fatty foods, our bodies respond to stress in other ways. Living in times of financial insecurity makes us all potential victims of stress. Besides the toll it takes on our immune systems, stress is often a catalyst for weight gain.

Research shows that exercises like yoga can help improve mental health, decrease stress, and get you in better shape. (Don’t be scared guys. Even manly men do yoga).

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