New study says habits, not cravings dictate our choices

Anew study on the concept of “stress eating” has found that people who eat during times of stress typically seek the foods they eat out of habit — regardless of how healthy or unhealthy that food is.

The research co-authored and presented by David Neal, a psychologist and founding partner at Empirica Research, contradicts the conventional wisdom that people who are stressed-out turn to high-calorie, low-nutrient comfort food. In the study he and his co-authors conducted this year, 59 MBA students at the University of California, Los Angeles, were asked during midterm exams which snack they would like from an array that included healthy snacks (fruit, non-fat yoghurt, whole wheat crackers, nuts/soy chips) and unhealthy options (various candy bars, flavoured popcorn, sugar cookies). The results found that during peak stress like an exam, participants were likely to fall back on their habitual snack.

“Habits are 45 per cent 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,” he added.