Research News Stress-related eating: does it affect pregnant women?

11 June 2024

Stress can lead to unhealthy food choices in 35-40% of the population, making the experience of stress an important target for interventions to improve overall health. But what about pregnant women? Does stress affect their food choices in a similar manner, taking into account the psychological and physiological changes that come along with pregnancy?

Hellen Lustermans and colleagues of the Developmental Psychobiology Lab (Department of Cognitive Neuroscience) tried to get an answer to this question. They tested the effect of an acute laboratory stressor on food choices in pregnant women in the third trimester. Around 110 women participated in the experiment: half of the group underwent a psychosocial stressor and the other half did a control task. Afterwards, food choices and food intake of all women were assessed.

The results showed that the acute stressor did not cause an increase in unhealthy food choices or intake, which is in contrast to most findings on stress-induced eating in non-pregnant populations. As this was the first study to test stress-induced eating in pregnant women, future research is needed to replicate this finding and examine stress-induced eating in other trimesters of pregnancy as well.

Another finding of this study was related to the pregnant women who did the control task. In this group, which did a non-stressful task in the lab, the researchers found that women made more unhealthy food choices after the experiment if they experienced more self-reported depressive and stress symptoms in daily life. This finding is in line with previous studies pointing at an association between mental health complaints and poor diet quality during pregnancy.

In sum, it seems that experiencing stress might be a barrier for a healthy diet quality in the long term instead of right after exposure to a stressor. However, it could also be the other way around: an unhealthy diet during the perinatal period might lead to mental health symptoms later on. In order to create effective interventions to improve the health and well-being of women in the perinatal period, researchers need to further unravel how mental health complaints and diet quality influence each other over time, from pregnancy to postpartum. 


Read the publication here.





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