A UK study suggests working long hours can cause women to indulge in unhealthy behaviors more so than men. The gender difference was found for behaviors such as snacking, exercising, smoking and drinking caffeine. Interestingly, long work hours reduced alcohol consumption for men and women.

The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is part of a more expansive study conducted by psychologists from Leeds University into the effects of stress on eating. The observation that men and women respond very differently to working long hours provides insight on how external factors can influence behavior.

Researcher Dr Daryl O’Connor explains: “Women who work long hours eat more high fat and high sugar snacks, exercise less, drink more caffeine and, if smokers, smoke more than their male colleagues,” he points out. “While for men, working longer hours has no negative impact on exercise, caffeine intake or smoking.”

These findings are part of a wider study conducted by psychologists from Leeds University into the effects of stress on eating. “Stress disrupts people’s normal eating habits,” Dr O’Connor suggests. “Stress causes people to opt for unhealthy high fat and high sugar snacks in preference to healthier food choices. Also people under stress eat less than usual in their main meals including their vegetable intake but shift their preference to high fat/high sugar snacks instead.”

In this study, researchers examined the stress caused by minor events, or hassles, both in and outside work such as having an argument with a colleague or friend, a meeting with your boss, giving a presentation at work, missing a deadline or even losing your keys. Findings show that those who experienced one or more such hassles during the day reported consuming significantly more between-meal snacks than usual but fewer portions of vegetables, not fruit, and a smaller main meal.

Of the different types of stressors, it is mental rather than physical stress that leads people to snack. Researchers categorized daily hassles into four types: ego-threatening, for example, giving a presentation; interpersonal, for example, an argument; work-related, for example, a meeting with your boss and physical, for example, a severe headache or feeling in danger. And while ego-threatening, interpersonal and work-related hassles lead people to snack more, physical stressors actually lead people to snack less.

Moreover, under stress, certain types of people are more likely to snack than others. “Those most at risk of snacking under stress are best described as ’emotional eaters’,” Dr O’Connor points out. “These individuals have higher levels of vulnerability and tend to turn to food as an escape from self-awareness. In other words, when they feel anxious or emotionally aroused or negative about themselves, they try to avoid these ‘negative’ feelings by turning their attention to food.”

“Our findings are disturbing in that they show stress produces harmful changes in diet and leads to unhealthy eating behaviors,” argues Dr O’Connor. “An overwhelming body of evidence shows the importance of maintaining a balanced diet, including eating a low fat diet and five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, in terms of reducing risk of cardiovascular disease cancer risk.

“Yet our study points to a clear link between stress and a tendency to eat more unhealthy snacks and consume fewer vegetables and less of a balanced main meal.”

Source: Economic & Social Research Council