Overeating? Maybe you're burned out at work
March 15th, 2012
11:19 AM ET

Overeating? Maybe you're burned out at work

Work can be a real burden for some people. They feel overwhelmingly exhausted and cynical toward their workplace environment, and believe their efforts are not valued. 

In other words, they are burned out.

A new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition connects these sentiments with overeating and controlled eating behaviors.

The experiment involved 230 working women. Those who were experiencing workplace burnout at the beginning of the experiment were more likely to have emotional and uncontrolled eating than those without burnout. This held true even after 12 months.

Among those without burnout, uncontrolled eating decreased significantly over the year.

"Among overweight and obese subjects, failure to make changes due to burnout and reduced resources may impair self-esteem and self-efficacy, which are important for achieving success in weight maintenance," the study authors wrote.

Consistent with previous research, body mass index tended to be associated with uncontrolled eating and emotional eating. And overweight and obese individuals were more likely to engage in these behaviors, too. However, there was no significant difference in weight between people with and without burnout. And almost half of the people with burnout were of normal weight.

There are, of course, individual differences when it comes to responding to stress - some people actually eat less when they are stressed out, while others eat more. Weight loss and gain under stress varies, also.

The researchers also did not take into account the participants' weight history, whether they had made significant changes before the study in terms of weight loss. This could have impacted the results.

A study involving more participants is needed to corroborate the findings of this particular investigation. But from what is known so far, experts recommend confronting the burnout head-on.

"What I find in a lot of people is that food is not the issue. They’re not necessarily eating the food for a physiological reason, but they’re doing it for a psychological reason. It just happens that food is so readily available," says Meagan Mohammadione, R.D., L.D., at the Emory Bariatric Center in Atlanta, who was not involved in the study.

Dr. Melina Jampolis, physician and nutrition expert for CNNHealth.com, also views stress as a critical issue for nutrition. If stress isn't addressed and managed in a long-term way, dietary and exercise changes are very challenging, she wrote in an e-mail.

In fact, short-term diet changes could actually aggravate the stress women feel by altering their brain chemistry and decreasing critical nutrient intake. For example, reducing carbohydrates could lower mood, which is already low.

"This really ties in to the growing body of research looking at the 'medication'-like properties of food in some cases, their impact on neurotransmitters in the brain, and also the interaction of the hypothalamic/adrenal(stress)/pituitary access and weight control," she wrote.

And note that this study was only done on women. Mohammadione says she sees many more women than men suffering from emotional eating. And while women tend to eat a lot when they're overwhelmed, men's emotional eating seems to be more tied to the perception that they need to finish everything on their plate - at least, in Mohammadione's view.

So what about cravings when you're at work, when the vending machine is tempting you with junk food? Mohammadione recommends planning to have healthy snacks readily available at work, such as baby carrots and apples, "so that [when] you absolutely do have to eat, you have a better choice."

Also, take a walk, she said. Just stepping away from your desk and getting a little exercise can replace that chocolate bar you were going to munch on.

"The emotional eating, it hits very quickly," Mohammadione said. "Your response to it has to be very quick as well."

Mindfulness techniques are being used to help people with eating problems. It's a way of being conscious and nonjudgmental about the emotions you're having, and translating that awareness to the practice of eating. For more information, check out the Center for Mindful Eating.

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