The study shows that unhealthy changes in alcohol and food consumption are not caused only by major stresses like divorce or losing a job. Day-to-day hassles such as "trouble making decisions at work" and school inspections were among those causing teachers to turn to an artery-clogging diet.
The study, by Andrew Steptoe and Zara Lipsey of St George's Hospital Medical School, London, and Jane Wardle of University College London, asked nurses and teachers to fill in a daily assessments of mood, alcohol and food intake, together with weekly measures of hassles, stress, anxiety, depression and exercise, over an eight-week period.
Twenty-nine nurses and 40 teachers were recruited but only 23 nurses and 21 teachers completed the course. Those who dropped out tended to be younger and more anxious so the findings may under-represent the effects of stress.
The recruits ate fast food more frequently during high stress weeks. But not everyone reacted in the same way to work and domestic worries. For instance, those who said they usually drank to cope with life showed even bigger increases in alcohol consumption during periods of high stress. Those who did not normally drink did not turn to the bottle in times of stress.
Teachers and nurses who said they normally chose food to help them feel good increased their intake of cheese during high-stress weeks while others didn't. But all types of eaters seemed to boost their consumption of sweet foods during periods of high stress (although not, oddly, of chocolate).
Although exercise is generally said to improve your mood, the study uncovered no difference in the amounts taken in low and high-stress weeks. But there is, as the authors point out, a common-sense explanation for that - and for the increased consumption of fast food at times of stress. Fast food is fast and exercise takes time. When you are under stress, time is one thing you do not have.