When stressed, reaching for comfort food feels reflexive but for many, it can be a high-calorie snack which can negatively impact your health. According to a new study, chronic stress combined with high-calorie comfort foods can make changes to the brain, driving people to eat more, increasing cravings for sweets, and leading to weight gain.
A research team from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research found that stress can override the brain’s natural response to feeling full, leading to non-stop reward signals that promote eating more highly palatable food, according to a press statement from the institute. This occurs in the part of the brain called lateral habenula, which when activated usually suppresses these reward signals.
“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,” explains Professor Herzog, senior author of the study and Visiting Scientist at the Garvan Institute in the Garvan Institute's statement.
The research, published in the journal Neuron, showed that chronic stress, along with a high-calorie diet, can increase food intake as well as a preference for sweet, highly palatable food, which promotes weight gain and obesity. This study emphasises the importance of a healthy diet during stressful times.
“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,” explains Herzog in the statement.
According to the researchers, their findings identify stress as a critical regulator of eating habits that can change the brain’s natural ability to balance energy needs. This research highlights how significantly 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 the junk food,” Herzog adds in the statement. This study shows that it’s important to understand how a stressful lifestyle could be impacting different aspects of one’s life and make relevant changes.