A person eats McDonald's french fries.

EAST LANSING, Mich. — A tough day at the office can lead to a busy night in the kitchen. New research ties work-related stress to poor eating habits, but a dose of healthy sleep may be the key to avoiding an unhealthy junk food fix.

Researchers at Michigan State University say the study is among the first to examine how negative experiences at work affect a person’s diet.

Person eating McDonald's French fries
A new study finds that people often repel a bad day at work by eating junk food, but they’re less likely to eat unhealthy snacks after a good night’s sleep.

“We found that employees who have a stressful workday tend to bring their negative feelings from the workplace to the dinner table, as manifested in eating more than usual and opting for more junk food instead of healthy food,” says co-author Chu-Hsiang Chang, an associate professor of psychology, in a university news release.

The research involved data from two studies in which the authors observed a total of 235 workers from China. Participants in the first study were identified as information-technology workers who felt they were managing heavy workloads. The second study included participants who worked at call-centers and reported feeling stress from customer calls.

The team found that work-related stress was directly related to poor diet in the participants. Yet when the individuals enjoyed a proper dose of sound sleep, they were more likely to eat better and skip the junk food, even after stressful days on the job.

Yihao Liu, a co-author and assistant professor at the University of Illinois, says upset workers turn to junk food because it taps into a person’s desires, which can alleviate the pain from work.

“Second, unhealthy eating can also be a consequence of diminished self-control. When feeling stressed out by work, individuals usually experience inadequacy in exerting effective control over their cognitions and behaviors to be aligned with personal goals and social norms,” suggests Liu.

So how does sleep prevent someone from fixing up a bowl of ice cream?

“A good night’s sleep can make workers replenished and feel vigorous again, which may make them better able to deal with stress at work the next day and less vulnerable to unhealthy eating,”  says Chang.

The researchers suggest companies do what they can to keep employee stress at a minimum, and offer sleep-awareness training and more lenient scheduling.

The study’s findings were published last month in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

About Charles Hartwell

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