Official: stress makes us turn to the chocolate box and biscuit tin

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STRESS makes us eat sweets. Psychologists have found that we respond to the daily hassles of modern living by reaching for the biscuit tin and the chocolate bar rather than the brown rice and green salad.

A study of 40 psychiatric nurses and teachers who kept a diary of domestic rows, car breakdowns and problems at work found that such incidents led to consumption of more sweet foods, high-fat fast-foods and alcohol.

Professor Andrew Steptoe, of St George's Hospital Medical School in London who conducted the study, published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, said the findings showed that even minor day-to-day stresses could alter eating and drinking patterns with potential long-term consequences for health.

"We have known that major events such as divorce, bereavement, or doing exams can have an effect. But we didn't know until now that common problems of work stress and domestic conflict could induce similar changes."

An individual's desire for sugar when under stress could be the result of a biological imperative to obtain an energy boost.

Professor Steptoe said: "In some situations, such as when you know you are going to have to work long hours, you may feel the need to top up your energy levels. But it is difficult to see why this should be necessary after you have had a row with your children, or the car has broken down."

Pressure at home or work may make people less inclined to cook so they stop for a burger on the way home, or open another packet of biscuits.

But there was also the comfort factor, Professor Steptoe said.

"Some researchers have suggested there is a biological process linked to the neurochemistry of the brain that makes us pick up certain foods when in certain moods. It may be that we select them to achieve a restoration of equilibrium in mood."

The benefits tend to be short-lived, however. Unwrapping a chocolate bar may bring instant gratification but it is frequently followed by feelings of guilt. "It is a double edged-sword. Trying to cheer ourselves up with chocolate may be effective in the short term, but not in the long run," Professor Steptoe said.