A Cluttered Kitchen May Undo Your Diet

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shutterstock_288396902 Dirty kitchen via Shutterstock

Weight-loss efforts are affected by a host of social, environmental and personal factors that work to either facilitate or inhibit a dieter's move towards a slimmer self. The interplay among these factors should not be underestimated, especially one that's largely overlooked and has the potential to wreak havoc on one's diet: A cluttered, chaotic kitchen.

According to a study involving 101 women at Cornell s Food and Brand Lab, researchers showed that when those with heightened stress levels were placed in a noisy, messy kitchen -- think scattered newspapers, a stacked sink of dirty dishes, relentless telephone ringing -- and they were asked to wait patiently for another person, they ate more. In fact, these women ate twice as many of the cookies left out for them as did their equally-stressed counterparts, who waited in the same kitchen, but one which was organized and quiet.

"Being in a chaotic environment and feeling out of control is bad for diets," states the study's lead author Lenny Vartanian, PhD., from the Psychology Department of the University of New South Wales in Australia. "It seems to lead people to think, 'Everything else is out of control, so why shouldn't I be?' "

The takeaway message is this: Environmental chaos can induce stress. Stress then leads to a coping mechanism. In this instance, the coping mechanism was to overeat. And overeating? It's your one-way ticket to weight gain.

But what's also worth considering are the cascade of events that led to the overeating -- a cascade not relegated to just this one experiment, but one that's applicable to the broader population. A better understanding of this could help with the diet-and-food-related issues many of us face.

Stress is a condition characterized by symptoms of physical or emotional tension and anxiety. In a normal, stress-free state, we have hormones that circulate our body, catecholamines, called epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones give us the energy to perform daily tasks in a calm, consistent manner. But if we're triggered by an unpleasant feeling or event, these catecholamine levels rise. And our bodies' natural response is to find a way to lessen them.

One coping mechanism in dealing with stress is to overeat. Eating increases another of the body's "feel good" hormone, called serotonin, which helps to improve mood. Serotonin tempers the catecholamines, thus reducing feelings of stress.

Baked goods, candies and breads are all examples of foods that prompt a serotonin release. As such, it's no surprise that the experimental group ate twice as many cookies as the control group. In other words, these researchers might say that a clean home is a happy home, and a clean and calm kitchen is a place for dieters to feel safer and more secure.