Brain scans hint at reasons for stress-eating

woman looking into refrigerator

A stressful experience may weaken resolve in the face of good and bad food choices by influencing key networks in the brain, a new study suggests. 

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Ask anyone who has succumbed to the office doughnut right after a tense meeting: Stress eating is real. Moderate stress crumples diet-related willpower by changing the behavior of the brain, a small study suggests.

Scientists stressed out 29 young men by making them stick one hand in ice water for three minutes while a researcher monitored and videotaped the ordeal. Compared with 22 men who held a hand in warm water without an audience, stressed men were more likely to pick the tasty but less healthy option when choosing between pictures of two foods.

This stress-induced preference came along with a host of brain changes, the researchers argue in the Aug. 5 Neuron. Brain regions involved in signaling the tastiness of food showed more coordinated activity after stress, and coordination between brain areas implicated in self-control grew weaker. If confirmed, these changes suggest that stress may simultaneously make junk food more alluring and weaken resolve. 

Laura Sanders

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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