The Fat CEO: Why Many in Leadership Roles Are Comfort Eating

Man taking note on Prevalence & Features of Eating Disorders in Males

Overwhelming stress and pressure seem to be ingrained in the American lifestyle. In fact, in 2015, the American Psychological Association found that the majority of Americans report moderate or high levels of stress [1].

For those that hold a leadership position, this stress is often heightened and chronic. After all, these individuals are tasked with ensuring the success and well-being of the company they work for as well as its employees.

While some claim that this pressure brings out the greatness in leaders, there is no doubt that this overwhelming responsibility and chronic stress can take its toll.

One study found that 25% of chief executives aged 50 or younger had higher levels of depression and anxiety and believe they were at risk from job burnout [2].

Another showed that many CEOs are showing increased signs of stress, with the main issues being the job interfering with family and personal lives due to enhanced workloads, work-related traveling, and weekend working [3].

Chronic Stress

The consequences of holding a position of power are also physical. Severe stress leads to increased cortisol production. “Prolonged exposure to cortisol is highly toxic, wreaking havoc on the cardiovascular and immune systems, affecting the brain and memory, and probably impairing the ability to assess risk [4].”

This may explain why individuals holding leadership positions engage in dangerous and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcoholism, drug abuse, or disordered eating.

“Chronic life stress is associated with greater engagement in ‘comfort eating,’ or the consumption of high fat, high-sugar, or high-calorie ‘comfort food’ concurrent with an emotional state [1].”

Further, chronic psychological stress to due to workplace hassles is associated with increased consumption of high-fat/high-sugar [1].

Recall that a study mentioned above found increased instances of depression and anxiety in chief executives. Studies have also shown that these negative mood states are related to increased food-seeking behaviors.

Only 30% of the population decrease their food intake when stressed, with the other, larger, portion instead increasing their food intake considerably [5].

It is theorized that individuals engage in comfort eating in to reduce the aversive feeling associated with stress. While this may not be the sole connection between individuals in leadership positions and comfort eating, it seems clear that this is a viable explanation.

For those that hold positions of power, be aware of these pitfalls. Research indicates that comfort eating does buffer feelings of perceived stress but only in individuals without elevated levels of perceived stress [1].

Woman workingAll-around, however, comfort eating has been found to be an ineffective and temporary solution to chronic problems. Engaging in comfort eating puts individuals at risk for developing feelings of shame and guilt afterward which could lead to bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder.

To efficiently cope with workplace stress, engage in nourishing and healing behaviors that restore the body and mind and allow you to feel at peace.

Your mental and physical well-being should always be valued over career success. If your job is causing you distress and putting your health at risk, consider speaking with a therapist or life-coach about making a more positive change in your life and career.

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.About the Author: Margot Rittenhouse is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


[1] Finch, L. E., Tomiyama, A. J. (2015). Comfort eating, psychological stress, and depressive symptoms in young adult women. Appetite, 95, 239-244.
[2] Sutherland, V. J., Cooper, C. L. (1995). Chief executive lifestyle stress. Leadership & Organizational Development Journal, 16:7, 18-28.
[3] Cooper, C. L., Sutherland, V. J. (1991). The stress of the executive lifestyle: trends in the 1990s. Employee Relations, 13:4, 3-7.
[4] Ogden, J. (2015). Leadership: stress and hubris. Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry, 14-16.
[5] Pool, E., Delplanque, S., Coppin, G., Sander, D. (2015). Is comfort food really comforting?mechanisms underlying stress-induced eating. Food Research International, 76, 207-215.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on February 10, 2018.

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