Do you find yourself reaching for junky, high-calorie snacks and meals after hearing unsettling news? If so, you probably chide yourself for trying to bury your cares under an irresistible mountain of sweet, salty or fatty “comfort food.” You know the food doesn’t fix your stress…but you still keep trying.

Well, it turns out that the real reason you eat so poorly under stress may be something very different. According to new research, it has more to do with our evolutionary hardwiring than with any pleasure we get from the food. It’s very logical…and it may finally help you to overcome those gotta-eat-big-cals-now cravings.


The researchers conducted several experiments. In the first, 121 people were invited to participate in what they were led to believe was a taste test for a new type of M&M candy. All were given the exact same thing—a bowl containing 48 grams (1.7 ounces) of regular M&Ms—and invited to sample the candies until they felt ready to evaluate the product. Half of the participants were told that the candies contained a special chocolate made from “high-calorie, highly rated imported ingredients”…while the other half were told that the special chocolate was made from “low-calorie, highly rated imported ingredients.”

Normally, you’d expect that people would consume less if they thought a food was higher in calories. But here was the twist…

As the participants from both groups were taste-testing the candy, some were positioned directly across from wall posters that included sentences containing words such as struggle, adversity and shortfall—words that created an impression of what the researchers called a harsh environment. The other participants faced posters containing neutral messages that contained no words with any harsh connotations.

Candy count: Among participants in the “harsh environment,” those who believed that the M&Ms were high in calories ate an average of 18.9 grams of the candy…but those who believed the M&Ms to be low in calories consumed only 10.6 grams. Among participants in the neutral environment, however, there was very little difference in the amount of candy consumed regardless of whether they thought the M&Ms were high-calorie (13.7 grams) or low-calorie (14.7 grams).

Why did people in the harsh environment eat more when they believed the food had extra calories? It’s a logical consequence, researchers believe, of what psychologists call the fast life-history strategy. According to this theory, when people are in an environment that they perceive as harsh, they expect resources (for instance, food) to be scarce and competition for those resources to be stiff. Because the future seems uncertain, the fast strategy favors immediate benefits—such as extra calories that provide immediate energy and keep hunger at bay longer than low-calorie foods would—at the expense of long-term consequences, such as heart disease or unwanted weight gain. That’s why people in a harsh environment naturally opt for high-calorie foods.


In their second experiment, the researchers went a step further to determine whether providing resources would change what people chose to eat. This time, 238 participants played a computer game in which they pushed a certain key on the keyboard whenever any word appeared on the screen…they pushed a different key whenever a string of letters that did not spell a real word appeared.

Participants were told that the aim of the test was to gauge their ability to pay attention, but in truth, the purpose was to expose them to words that established a particular type of environment. One group was shown words that implied a harsh environment (survival, withstand, persistence). For a second group, the words were associated with pleasure (comfort, enjoyment, indulgence). A third group saw neutral words.

Next, half of the participants in each group were given $1 (the “resource”), while the other half were not. After that, all the participants were asked whether they would prefer to eat a garden salad or cupcakes. The participants did not actually have to pay for the food they chose—rather, the point of the dollar was to dispel the subconscious impression that resources were scarce. (After all, when you have money, you can afford to buy food—so a harsh environment seems less threatening.)

Results: Participants who had seen neutral words or words associated with pleasure were equally likely to select the high-calorie cupcakes whether or not they had been given resources in the form of the dollar bill. What happened with the participants who had seen words associated with a harsh environment? Among those who had been given the $1 resource, only 45% selected cupcakes…whereas among those who had not received the dollar and thus presumably perceived a scarcity of resources, 73% opted for cupcakes.


Noting that the participants’ selection of high-calorie foods was driven not by taste, but rather by perceptions of resource scarcity, the researchers made a very interesting observation. Many restaurant menus now include calorie counts, presumably as a reality check to help patrons keep their consumption under control. However, this approach could backfire if diners who feel stressed by their current situation are instead drawn to the higher-calorie foods due to the fast strategy phenomenon! Consider this next time you’re comparing calorie counts on menus or food labels…or even just in your mind.

Also helpful: When you feel the urge to head for the snack drawer even though you’re not really hungry, why not first do a mental review of what you’ve just been doing? Remind yourself that you are more vulnerable to cravings for high-calorie foods after you’ve been, say, watching scenes of political unrest on the TV news, reading a newspaper article about the lousy economy or talking with a friend who just lost out on a promotion at work.

Then, before you cave in to your primal urge to consume a bunch of extra calories whenever the world seems harsh, spend a moment reminding yourself that your food resources are not dangerously scarce. You might even take a peek into your well-stocked pantry as a reminder that food will be available when you really need it. Doing so may dispel your subconscious feeling that the world is such a harsh place that you’d better eat now and eat big—and make it easier to stay healthy.