Stress May Be Wiring Your Brain To Crave Sugary Food And More Of It. Here’s How To Reverse That

Fortune Well June 12, 2023


Stress May Be Wiring Your Brain To Crave Sugary Food And More Of It. Here’s How To Reverse That

Have you ever felt stressed and immediately turned to a childhood favorite of boxed mac and cheese or a warm piece of cake? Guilty.  

Feeling stressed can often lead people to reach for a high-calorie, sugary comfort food. While it’s easy to feel that the initial sugar rush of a pleasurable bite might ease feelings of discomfort, new research suggests stress may have a longer-term impact on how the brain craves certain foods. 

In a study published in the journal Neuron Thursday, researchers from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research found the combination of chronic stress and comfort food may influence the brain to continue craving comfort food (often higher in processing and calories), negating people’s feelings of fullness and increasing the chances of developing obesity. 

How the brain responds to chronic stress

“Our findings reveal stress can override a natural brain response that diminishes the pleasure gained from eating—meaning the brain is continuously rewarded to eat,” says Herbert Herzog, Ph.D., senior author of the study and visiting scientist at the Garvan Institute, in a press release.

Using mice in their model, researchers examined how different diets affected the brain’s response to chronic stress. The results suggest a link between stress and the body’s response to food. Stressed mice on a high-fat diet gained twice the weight compared with non-stressed mice on a high-fat diet. 

“We discovered that an area known as the lateral habenula, which is normally involved in switching off the brain’s reward response, was active in mice on a short-term, high-fat diet to protect the animal from overeating. However, when mice were chronically stressed, this part of the brain remained silent—allowing the reward signals to stay active and encourage feeding for pleasure, no longer responding to satiety regulatory signals,” says Kenny Ip, Ph.D., an author of the Garvan study.

What’s more, the researchers gave mice the option to drink water or artificially sweetened water. The mice under stress consumed the artificial sweetener three times as much as the mice who were not. Both groups of mice were on the same high-fat diet. 

“In stressful situations it’s easy to use a lot of energy, and the feeling of reward can calm you down; this is when a boost of energy through food is useful. But when experienced over long periods of time, stress appears to change the equation, driving eating that is bad for the body long term,” Herzog says in the press release.

How to prevent stress eating 

To avoid the sugar crash and potential negative health impacts of overeating, consider having nutritious foods on hand when working whether from home or at the office. Healthy options are crucial when the day gets busy. Leaning toward a food you love filled with protein and fiber will help keep you feeling full while giving you long-term energy. Foods rich in vitamin D can help strengthen the brain, while whole foods can keep your heart healthy.

“Be sure to have plenty of healthy, nutrient-dense options ready to go, [such as] fruit and veggies in the fridge that are washed and chopped so they are easy to grab,” Dena Champion, an RDN (registered dietitian nutritionist) with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, previously told Fortune. 

Stress may also equate to not having time to sit down and eat. Beyond the mental health benefits of enjoying a meal with good company (not in a rush!), planning the time to eat can also limit the impulse to grab something in a hurry that may not make you feel sustained long term. 

Many nutrition experts recommend eating mindfully, too—especially in times of stress. It can be easy to quickly snack on a bag of chips without even enjoying it when we are stressed. Mindful eating starts with slowing down and focusing on the food you have in front of you. While less about restriction, mindfulness can help people take a beat and think about what will benefit their bodies before making an impulsive decision under stressful circumstances.

“Ideally, you should sit down and enjoy your food, and focus on the tastes, smells, and feel of it, even if it’s just for five minutes,” Ginger Hultin, a Seattle-based RDN at Champagne Nutrition, previously told Fortune

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