Journal article Open Access

Networks of stress, affect and eating behaviour: anticipated stress coping predicts goal-congruent eating in young adults

Pannicke, Björn; Kaiser, Tim; Reichenberger, Julia; Blechert, Jens

Background: Many people aim to eat healthily. Yet, affluent food environments encourage consumption of energy dense and nutrient-poor foods, making it difficult to accomplish individual goals such as maintaining a healthy diet and weight. Moreover, goal-congruent eating might be influenced by affects, stress and intense food cravings and might also impinge on these in turn. Directionality and interrelations of these variables are currently unclear, which impedes targeted intervention. Psychological network models offer an exploratory approach that might be helpful to identify unique associations between numerous variables as well as their directionality when based on longitudinal time-series data.

Methods: Across 14 days, 84 diet-interested participants (age range: 18–38 years, 85.7% female, mostly recruited via universities) reported their momentary states as well as retrospective eating episodes four times a day. We used multilevel vector autoregressive network models based on ecological momentary assessment data of momentary affects, perceived stress and stress coping, hunger, food craving as well as goal-congruent eating behaviour.

Results: Neither of the momentary measures of stress (experience of stress or stress coping), momentary affects or craving uniquely predicted goal-congruent eating. Yet, temporal effects indicated that higher anticipated stress coping predicted subsequent goal-congruent eating. Thus, the more confident participants were in their coping with upcoming challenges, the more they ate in line with their goals.

Conclusion: Most eating behaviour interventions focus on hunger and craving alongside negative and positive affect, thereby overlooking additional important variables like stress coping. Furthermore, self-regulation of eating behaviours seems to be represented by how much someone perceives a particular eating episode as matching their individual eating goal. To conclude, stress coping might be a potential novel intervention target for eating related Just-In-Time Adaptive Interventions in the context of intensive longitudinal assessment.

This work was supported by the European Research Council (ERCStG-2014 639445 NewEat) and the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) [I02130-B27]. BP and JR were supported by the ERC. Publishing open access is supported by the FWF. The funding bodies were not involved in the study design, the assessment and analyses of data, the interpretation of results and writing the manuscript.
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