Habits, not cravings, drive food choice during times of stress

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Habits, not cravings, drive food choice during times of stress

Related tags Ift annual meeting Nutrition Psychology

People who eat during times of stress seek out food they consume through habit - regardless of how healthy or unhealthy that food may be, say researchers.

The new data contradicts the conventional wisdom, and previous research findings, which have both suggested that people who are stressed-out turn to high-calorie, low-nutrient 'comfort food.'

But, presenting at the IFT Annual Meeting & Expo, USA, Dr David Neal, psychologist and founding partner at Empirica Research noted that his group's latest findings indicate that people who eat during times of stress typically seek the foods they eat out of habit – regardless of how healthy or unhealthy that food is.

"Habits don't change in a high-pressure situation," ​said Neal. "People default to what their habits are under stress, whether healthy or not."

Study details

The findings, from a study on 59 students at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that when suffering from exam-related stress, the students consumed higher levels of snack products that they habitually consumed anyway.

During midterm exams, the participants were asked which snack they would like from an array that included healthy snacks - such as fruit, non-fat yogurt, whole wheat crackers, nuts/soy chips - and unhealthy options - including various candy bars, flavoured popcorn, sugar cookies.

The students were asked to rate how often during a normal week they choose that snack.

Neal and his team found that during peak stress like an exam, participants were likely to fall back on their habitual snack.

Industry importance

Neale Martin, Ph.D., founding partner of Sublime Behavior Marketing and author of 'Habit: the 95% of Behaviour Marketers Ignore', commented that the research has 'significant implications' for food manufacturers that are trying to establish new products with consumers.

He noted that consumers are already habituated to the current products on store shelves, with the average weekly shopping trip taking about 45 minutes and including 31 items.

"Think about the cognitive efficiency of that effort,"​ Martin said. "Think of how many things you're not looking at; how many things you are ignoring."

Martin said he believes such factors are a major reason for why around 80% of new products fail or dramatically underperform - a rate, he noted, that has been largely unchanged for decades.

A new product has to become part of the daily habits of consumers, which is not an easy task. Consumers need to find a place in their day where they are willing to disrupt their current habit and adopt a new one with that product, he said.

"Where is the room for another brand in your life? Where is there room for another product? We are overwhelmed by choices,"​ he said. "Figure out the automated behaviour and then find out how to disrupt it and get consumers to initiate the behaviour you want."

"You have to get the behaviour to occur and then reinforce it by making sure the experience is so fantastic they want it to happen again."

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