How are anxiety and eating high-carbohydrate foods connected? Does everyone self-soothe with sweets or other comfort foods when they are anxious? The Hadassah Medical Organization’s Linda Joy Pollin Cardiovascular Wellness Center for Women conducted a study to find out, and their researchers made some surprising discoveries.

It’s well known that while proper nutrition and physical activity decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, many women find it difficult to eat right and exercise, particularly if they are anxious. When Pollin Center researchers set out to study the relationship between anxiety and eating habits, they assumed that greater anxiety would lead to increased consumption of sugary foods, sweetened drinks, and carbohydrates, based on what they know about emotional eating.

The researchers discovered that when their patients’ anxiety increased from low to moderate levels, they did, indeed, engage in the emotional eating of sweets and other high-carbohydrate foods. But they unexpectedly discovered that women with higher levels of anxiety were actually less likely to consume sugar-rich foods.

What was going on? The answer lies in the physiology of anxiety, they report. “At the higher levels of anxiety,” the researchers explain, “the body experiences a physiological ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction, which then gives way to a more passive ‘freeze’ mode.” This phenomenon may explain women’s tendencies to indulge in more sugary foods when moderately anxious but to be less attracted to these foods as anxiety increases from moderate to severe levels.”

The researchers hypothesize, “It is possible that while the temptation to overindulge in sweet drinks may increase together with anxiety for those who are less anxious, those experiencing more extreme levels of anxiety may feel too overwhelmed to attempt to reduce their tension through this particular means of self-regulation.” As a result,  they experience “an inability to self-soothe through emotional eating at extreme levels of anxiety.”

The authors conclude that “our study points to the importance of evaluating and treating psychological functioning, as well as individual eating behaviors, as part of a lifestyle intervention.”

The study was published in the August 28, 2020, issue of Frontiers in Psychology.