Munching Through Life’s Travails

The world is divided into Munchers and Skippers.

I’m a Skipper, which means that, when living gets stressful, I stop eating. I don’t snack. I skip meals.

Munchers, on the other hand, invented comfort food. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Chunky Monkey or Doritos or cheeseburgers. Calories are taken like a tonic against life’s mishaps.

Traditionally, Munchers have been viewed as more pathetic than Skippers—and more of a problem. Feeding on calorie-dense foods shows lack of self-discipline, and leads to unhealthy weight gain. And given our high-stress modern lives, it’s likely that anxious munching is contributing to the nation’s obesity epidemic. Compared to maladjusted Munchers, Skippers are seen as lucky.

But is this really a complete picture of stress and eating? Psychological scientist Gudrun Sproesser and her colleagues at the University of Konstanz, Germany, suspected that this view might be too simplistic. Isn’t it possible, Sproesser speculated, that both Munchers and Skippers compensate for their stress reactions by eating differently when things are going well? In this sense, isn’t it also possible that Skippers are not as lucky as they appear at first? From this perspective, Skippers might not turn to comfort food when they are tense, but they could make up for it with a different kind of overeating when they are at ease or joyful.

Sproesser decided to explore this intriguing and untested idea in the lab. She recruited volunteers to participate in a study of first impressions—actually an elaborate charade in which the subjects interacted with an unfamiliar partner by way of videos prior to a planned face-to-face meeting. After exchanging videos (there actually was no partner in another room), the volunteers received one of three messages: Some heard that that their partner had decided not to meet with them face-to-face after seeing the video. This social rejection was meant to be stressful, since nobody likes being snubbed by peers. Others heard that their partner liked them, based on the video, and looked forward to meeting them. This acceptance was designed as a positive experience. Still others heard that the experiment had to be cancelled for unspecified reasons—the control condition.

The idea was to simulate real life—stressful at times, positive and rewarding at other times, sometimes just neutral. Afterward, all the volunteers went on to another study—actually another ruse. They were told they were participating in a taste test for three flavors of ice cream, and could eat as much of the samples as they liked. They were left alone for this test, but the experimenter later measured the amount—and the total calories—each volunteer consumed. Finally, each volunteer self-identified himself or herself as a habitual Muncher or a Skipper.

The idea was to see if stressed and positive states of mind would cause Munchers and Skippers to change their eating patterns in opposite ways. And they did, clearly. As described in a forthcoming article in the journal Psychological Science, positive and negative social conditions elicited complementary changes in both habitual Munchers and habitual Skippers. That is, Munchers became Skippers when their lives were pleasurable—while habitual Skippers did the opposite. Notably, they did not just return to the baseline eating seen in controls; they compensated for their coping styles of eating by boosting or losing appetite. And the difference was far from trivial—a swing of between 74 and 120 calories, a difference large enough to significantly affect body weight over time. Actual BMI had no effect on outcomes.

What all this suggests is that—contrary to received wisdom—neither Munchers nor Skippers is at greater risk for maladaptive eating. Indeed, there is no evidence here that stress leads to unhealthy eating, since it’s the balance through life’s ups and downs that matters. Munchers may compensate for their stress-induced munching by cutting back when life is pleasant, just as Skippers may make up for those skipped meals with good-time munchies. In this sense, Munchers and Skippers may differ less in their total calorie consumption—and more in the the dynamics of that consumption. Both, Sproesser concludes, have “a soft spot for food.”

These findings have intuitive appeal to me. I may be a Skipper when events go topsy-turvy, but I love food—and I especially love celebrating good times with food. Plus, if I weren’t compensating for those skipped meals, I’d be a lot skinnier.

The results lead to some provocative speculation. For example, it may be that munching under stress is not a problem at all, at least not one requiring increased discipline and self-regulation. In fact, since eating comfort food can diminish physiological stress reactivity, cutting back on these foods during stressful experiences might actually disturb normal eating patterns—and perhaps even cause stress, leading to more chaotic eating patterns and to long-term weight gain.

Wray Herbert’s blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in The Huffington Post and elsewhere.

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