The neighborhood association meeting started out benignly enough, with a non-contentious minutes read and acceptance, followed by people chitchatting as the chairperson droned on about some street maintenance issue. Someone had placed bowls of snack food on the table, along with diet and non-diet sodas, but all were ignored. About 20 minutes into the meeting an agenda item launched agitated discussions with people talking over each other and, when they couldn’t be heard, muttering to themselves. Just as suddenly hands dipped into the bowls of pretzels, chips, nuts, and crackers and cups of soda poured and gulped. Some people were talking through mouthfuls of chips as they attempted to enter the conversation and others, who were shut out, stuffed more food in their mouths.
The committee meeting was a living poster for stress-induced eating.
What was a little surprising was that the gobbling of snacks occurred in public. We tend to assume that those among us who resort often or even infrequently, to emotional overeating, do so in private. The ice cream, cookies, chicken fingers, pork rinds, or doughnuts are usually eaten alone or in the company of people who are sympathetic and supportive of the problem driving the eating. But the behavior of this group shows that if the provocation is sufficiently strong, the eating response may be immediate, even if embarrassingly visible to others.
This is not to say that people in groups don’t overeat. Watch people at a meal listening to a speaker as they eat. Their interest in their food increases in proportion to their boredom. If a speaker notices that the members of the lunch or dinner audience are attempting to eat the crumbs of the roll from the tablecloth, it’s very clear signal that he or she ought to wrap up the talk immediately.
But people at the committee meeting were not eating out of boredom; they were eating because of stress. Each member of the committee felt that he or she had to influence the outcome of the discussion, and many were afraid that the outcome would not be to their advantage.
Were they aware of how much they were eating? If they had been asked to fill out a food diary a few hours later, would they have reported eating three handfuls of pretzels or nuts, or drinking 10 ounces of soda? Probably not.
Did the eating influence the intensity of the discussion? The act of putting food in one’s mouth may have been somewhat calming, just as giving a whining child pieces of breakfast cereal to eat has a distracting and calming effect. And obviously chewing somewhat dry food made it hard to shout out comments without spraying a fellow committee person with bits of pretzels or chips.
The mainly carbohydrate snacks would have had a calming effect—if the meeting had gone on long enough for the food to be digested and serotonin to be made. But that would have taken at least another half an hour, and the meeting broke up before then.
Stress associated with group interaction is usually overlooked among the many triggers inducing overeating. And there are unspoken rules about eating behavior in the corporate culture that probably deem any unrestrained eating at a meeting as unprofessional even when food is available? If someone at a lunch meeting begins to munch on several chocolate chip cookies brought in with the sandwiches, others will notice and wonder at his or her lack of control. There is stress most certainly, but if it generates overeating, it is usually done afterward, in private. I once had a client whose presentation to her team was so criticized that she went to a gourmet chocolate shop in the lobby of her office building, bought five pounds of chocolate and ate it all in her office (with the door closed).
The advice I gave her might, however, be useful to those attending future meetings of committees where emotional discomfort is inevitable: Eat proactively to reduce future stress. She was to eat a small, non-fat carbohydrate, such as half a plain bagel, 30-45 minutes before going into her meetings, so that the serotonin made after she consumed the carbohydrate would be a little calming.
If my fellow neighborhood association members had followed the same advice would there have been a quieter, more restrained discussion? If they had “armed” their brain with more serotonin before the meeting, would they have ignored the snacks on the table?
But of course there is another solution to the problem of committee meeting-induced overeating: stay home.