National Academy of Medicine

Stress-induced Eating Behaviors of Health Professionals: A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Perspective

By Kathrin Eliot and Kathryn M. Kolasa
March 24, 2017 | Commentary

For health professionals, stress and eating often combine in unhealthy ways. The stress comes early in their training and lingers throughout their careers. Anyone who has worked or trained in a hospital knows all too well the cycle of workplace stress leading some individuals to overeat and gain excess weight, which in turn leads to physical and mental stress due to the weight gain itself. Others react to stress by eating less and losing weight, which can similarly have negative consequences. Often stress comes with unhealthy food choices such as skipping meals, reliance on fast food, restricting fluid intake, or choosing foods high in sugars and fats and low in nutrients. Skipping meals and drinking too little fluid have not been shown to increase medical errors, but they do contribute to “burn-out” and jeopardize weight and nutritional status.

A survey of registered nurses in Ohio supports the observation that disordered eating (DE) occurs during times of stress. Among the 435 respondents, “nurses with high levels of perceived job stress and low levels of body satisfaction had higher disordered eating involvement.” Shiftwork may in part be to blame for weight gain and DE. In a study of 72 residents who routinely had 24-hour hospital coverage during their medical training, both male and female residents showed a “low intake of vegetables and fruits and [a] high intake of sweets, saturated fat, cholesterol, and caffeine.” This dietary pattern was combined with “a high prevalence of low sleep quality and excessive daytime sleepiness” that for some led to overweight and obesity as well as changes in metabolic profiles such as elevated cortisol and hypertriglyceridemia.

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Suggested Citation

Eliot, Kathrin and K. M. Kolasa. 2017. Stress-Induced Eating Behaviors of Health Professionals: A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Perspective. NAM Perspectives. Commentary, National Academy of Medicine, Washington, DC. doi: 10.31478/201703i


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and not necessarily of the authors’ organizations, the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies). The paper is intended to help inform and stimulate discussion. It is not a report of the NAM or the National Academies. Copyright by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.