By John Salak –
Stress overeating: just about everyone gets involved. Frazzled at work, grab a Snickers; tired of watching your baseball team blow ninth inning leads, dive into a pint of rocky road; had it with your annoying brother-in-law, suddenly that leftover lasagna looks pretty good.
The munch down may be common and even understandable. Heck, high-fat foods may even offer some short-term comfort. But practice is a ticket to chubville, where any emotional benefits are short-term.
Research shows that stress eating makes us feel better for about three minutes. “That’s not very long or worth the aftermath,” Dr. Susan Albers, a psychologist, told the Cleveland Clinic.
The unfortunate catch is that stress eating feeds on itself for specific physiological. “Food is available 24/7. It’s legal, it’s easy to obtain and feels good. It’s no surprise we make a beeline for food whenever we feel stressed.”
Beyond this, the race to eat can be traced tens of thousands of years to the time of cavemen, the clinic reports. When ancient ancestors needed an energy boost to ward off a sabretooth tiger, their bodies released cortisol. It triggered their appetites. The extra calories consumed provided the energy they needed to fight or flee—effectively to stay alive. Admittedly, people don’t need to worry about wild animals now, but day-to-day stress still triggers cortisol production, which leads to excessive eating.
Australian researchers have discovered an even deeper physical link that drives stress eating. It may be even more troubling than the increase in cortisol production.
The Garvan Institute of Medical Research reports that stress can override the brain’s response to satiety, leading to non-stop reward signals that promote eating more highly palatable food. It occurs in a part of the brain called the lateral habenula, which usually dampens these reward signals when activated.
“Our findings reveal stress can override a natural brain response that diminishes the pleasure gained from eating—meaning the brain continuously is rewarded to eat,” said Professor Herzog, the study’s senior author. “We showed that chronic stress, combined with a high-calorie diet, can drive more and more food intake and a preference for sweet, highly palatable food, thereby promoting weight gain and obesity. This research highlights how crucial a healthy diet is during times of stress.”
The Australians noted that stress eating is made worse for most people because they usually choose calorie-rich foods high in sugar and fat. It leads to excessive weight gain for many. A related study of mice found that stressed mice on a high-fat diet gained twice as much weight as mice on the same diet that were not stressed. Stressed-out mice also gravitated towards sweet, high-fat foods, making the weight gain even greater.
“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, stress appears to change the equation, driving eating that is bad for the body long term,” Herzog said.
Stress is physically devasting for all sorts of reasons. But Herzog emphasized that his research shows the troubling extent to how much stress can compromise a healthy energy metabolism.
“It’s a reminder to avoid a stressful lifestyle, and crucially—if you are dealing with long-term stress — try to eat a healthy diet and lock away junk food,” he advised.