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Lowered Stress Could Reduce Fast Food Consumption, Study Shows

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that overweight low-income moms ate less fast food after a 16-week weight gain prevention program that involved stress management techniques.
  • The research showed a strong connection between reduced stress levels and lower consumption of fast food.
  • Experts say that stress-reduction programs, combined with increasing access to healthy foods, could help improve the nutrition levels of low-income people.

Managing stress can have profound effects on our wellbeing. You might sleep better, have fewer sick days, and find yourself in a better mood more often.

But did you know that reducing stress might also lead you to eat less fast food? That’s what a recent study in the journal Nutrients found when more than 200 overweight low-income moms of young children participated in a 16-week program aimed at preventing weight gain and improving stress management skills. Compared with the control group, the moms who joined the lifestyle intervention ate significantly less fast food, largely due to lower stress levels.

The results provide insight into new ways to potentially help improve the nutrition levels of people from under-resourced communities.

Here’s what the research says about the relationship between stress and fast food.

The Study

For the study, a team of researchers recruited 338 moms from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in Michigan between September 2012 and January 2015. The federally funded program offers nutrition education and nutritious foods to low-income pregnant women, moms of young kids, and children up to age 5. 

The average age of participants was 29 years old, and most were white. All were either obese or overweight. Between a third and half of participants were employed either full- or part-time. They also completed surveys about their stress levels, fat intake, and fast food consumption at both the beginning and end of the study.

The researchers asked 212 of the moms to participate in a 4-month-long program designed to help prevent weight gain through “stress management, healthy eating, and physical activity.” 

It involved watching 10 DVDs with testimonies from other overweight WIC participants and tips on things like overcoming daily challenges, reducing stress through deep breathing exercises and positive talk, planning healthy meals on a budget, and increasing physical activity. These participants also joined peer support group teleconferences led by peer educators and WIC dietitians. 

The 126 moms in the control group received reading materials about stress management, physical activity, and healthy diets.

Lowering Stress Helps Reduce Fast Food Consumption

The results showed that moms in the weight gain prevention intervention program ate significantly less fast food. The benefit was not seen when researchers controlled for stress levels, indicating that the stress reduction intervention played a major role in reducing fast food intake.

More specifically, it found that the frequency a person ate high-fat foods dropped by an average of 7% for each point they shaved off a four-point scale designed to measure stress levels. 

While the study isn’t perfect, experts say that it offers important insights.

“The study does have some limitations when we see how results were collected by recall versus a food diary, but in any case, there is definitely no down side to this intervention—it is all potentially positive,” says Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD, director of nutrition at Pritikin Longevity Center.

Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD

The study does have some limitations when we see how results were collected by recall versus a food diary, but in any case, there is definitely no down side to this intervention—it is all potentially positive.

— Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD

This research builds upon the results of three similar studies on low-income women who were pregnant or of child-bearing age, which found consistent links between stress and fast food intake. It may also be applicable to people outside of this demographic, says Nicole Beurkens, PhD, licensed psychologist, board-certified nutrition specialist, and founder and director of the Horizons Developmental Resource Center.

“I would expect that people in other groups would experience similar shifts when exposed to an intervention focused on stress awareness and healthy coping. The stress-food connection is present for all human beings, so stress reduction programs should be effective to at least some degree for most people,” she says.

Why Stress Reduction Can Improve Diets

While the recent study doesn’t explain why the moms ate less fast food when their stress levels dropped, experts say there are a few possible reasons for the trend.

Part of it might be the practical benefits of stress reduction, says Beurkens. 

Nicole Beurkens, PhD

Adults who experience high stress levels are likely to have less physical and emotional energy, which leads them to seek out processed and convenience foods for meals and snacks.

— Nicole Beurkens, PhD

“Adults who experience high stress levels are likely to have less physical and emotional energy, which leads them to seek out processed and convenience foods for meals and snacks,” she says. “It feels much more manageable to run through the fast-food drive-thru with the kids when you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted at the end of a workday, than to figure out what to make for dinner and actually prepare it.”

Gomer adds that the peer support the moms received may have also made a big impact on curbing how much fast food they ate—an especially important consideration while many people feel isolated during the pandemic.

“The peer support is meaningful—you’ve walked in my shoes and these are things that have lowered my stress, and helped me get healthier in my mind and body,” she says. “I don’t think we can adequately measure how the peer support is so critical during these times.”

There may also be a biological explanation for how lowering stress levels curbs fast food intake.

“We know that higher levels of stress lead people to eat foods that bring them a feeling of comfort and relaxation. Those tend to be processed foods with higher levels of simple carbs (including sugar), as they quickly break down and increase serotonin in the body,” says Beurkens.

“Serotonin is the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter that provides a feeling of relaxation and helps reduce the experience of stress temporarily. It makes sense, then, that interventions and strategies aimed at reducing people’s stress levels would improve their food decisions and eating behaviors.”

Stress Reduction Isn’t Everything

Adding stress reduction trainings to nutritional programs aimed at low-income people could make a big difference in their diets and overall wellbeing, experts say.

“Stress plays a major role in why and how we eat the way we do. Helping people become more aware of their stress level, and giving them some tools to reduce it, is an integral part of implementing a healthy diet and lifestyle,” says Beurkens. “It is also the case that stress negatively impacts digestion, which makes it more difficult for the body to absorb and utilize nutrients in the foods we eat.”

However, these types of programs might not be as effective without addressing other problems, such as a lack of access to fresh, healthy ingredients and basic cooking instruction. 

“Access is a critical issue to address, as people cannot purchase or consume foods that aren’t available to them. We need to expand programs that make fresh produce and other nutrient-dense foods available and affordable for people who don’t typically have access,” Beurkens explains.

“Teaching cooking skills is another key area to address, as most schools in the U.S. have stopped offering basic classes in cooking or home economics over the past two decades. If people don’t know how to shop for, prepare, and cook food, they are left with only packaged and processed options or fast food,” says Beurkens.

Nicole Beurkens, PhD

We need to expand programs that make fresh produce and other nutrient-dense foods available and affordable for people who don’t typically have access.

— Nicole Beurkens, PhD

She says that improving the lives of people from under-resourced backgrounds and communities will require policy changes from the government, not just stress management education and interventions.

“Policies and reforms aimed at providing quality education to all children, reducing economic disparities, providing adequate accessible healthcare to everyone, and addressing systemic racism and other injustices is ultimately what needs to happen to reduce the very real daily stressors for disadvantaged groups,” she says. “That would then allow them the resources financially and emotionally to focus on things like healthier eating and lifestyles.”

What This Means For You

A strong body of research has shown close ties between our stress levels and how much fast food we consume. This latest study deepens our understanding of the connection, showing that learning how to manage stress can have a powerful effect on our diets.

While the results show promise, experts say that stress intervention programs are only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to helping low-income people eat better. We also need policies that address problems like systemic racism, healthcare inequities, and food deserts. 

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  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Manage Stress. My Healthfinder. Updated March 18, 2021.

  2. Chang M-W, Brown R, Wegener DT. Perceived stress can mediate the associations between a lifestyle intervention and fat and fast food intakesNutrients. 2020;12(12):3606. Published November 24, 2020. doi:10.3390/nu12123606