Obesity results from chronic deregulation of energy balance, which may in part be caused by stress. Our objective was to investigate the effect of acute and psychological stress on food intake, using the eating in the absence of hunger paradigm, in normal and overweight men and women (while taking dietary restraint and disinhibition into account). In 129 subjects (BMI = 24.5 +/- 3.4 kg/m(2) and age = 27.6 +/- 8.8 years), scores were determined on the Three Factor Eating Questionnaire (dietary restraint = 7.2 +/- 4.4; disinhibition = 4.5 +/- 2.6; feeling of hunger = 3.9 +/- 2.6) and State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (trait score = 31.7 +/- 24.2). In a randomized crossover design, the "eating in absence of hunger" protocol was measured as a function of acute stress vs. a control task and of state anxiety scores. Energy intake from sweet foods (708.1 kJ vs. 599.4 kJ, P < 0.03) and total energy intake (965.2 kJ vs. 793.8 kJ, P < 0.01) were significantly higher in the stress condition compared to the control condition. Differences in energy intake between the stress and control condition were a function of increase in state anxiety scores during the stress task (Delta state anxiety scores) (R(2) = 0.05, P < 0.01). This positive relationship was stronger in subjects with high disinhibition scores (R(2) = 0.12, P < 0.05). Differences in state anxiety scores were a function of trait anxiety scores (R(2) = 0.07, P < 0.05). We conclude that acute psychological stress is associated with eating in the absence of hunger, especially in vulnerable individuals characterized by disinhibited eating behavior and sensitivity to chronic stress.