Stressful Snacking: How Everyday Stress Can Sabotage Your Diet

You know what it’s like — you have a hectic day and then finally get a few minutes to grab a snack. You know you should eat an apple, but the siren song of a cupcake becomes too loud to ignore. You blame it on your lack of willpower, but a study in the August 2015 journal Neuron says when it comes to choosing a tasty food over a healthier choice, stress is the real culprit.

The Science of Taste

Image by Stuart Webster via Flickr
Image by Stuart Webster via Flickr

The study by Swiss researchers used a sampling of 51 adult males who reported healthy eating habits but with some lapses. First, the participants filled out a questionnaire about their taste preferences. Then the researchers videotaped 29 of them as they each soaked one of their hands in an ice water bath to induce a mild stress reaction. Next, the researchers showed them pictures of foods and asked them to choose one to eat. While the subjects looked at the pictures, the researchers conducted brain scans and collected saliva samples to test for the stress hormone cortisol.

Your Brain on Food

Image by Allan Ajifo via Flickr
Image by Allan Ajifo via Flickr

According to the Los Angeles Times, the 29 stressed participants were 24 percent more likely than the control group to choose a tasty snack rather than a healthful one. The brain scans revealed that stress affects the connections between different communication centers in the brain. While the cortisol levels increase activity between the part of the brain that processes taste and those areas that deal with decision making and value judgements, stress weakens the connections between those areas and the long-term planning center. In other words, when you’re stressed, the taste center of your brain demands to be heard.

What It Means

The study shows that one of the most powerful factors in decision-making is the communication between regions of the brain that signal immediate versus long-term reward. A CNN article on stress eating says people often feel overwhelmed when under stress, and they seek immediate relief through eating, even if that overrides their long-term health goals. Foods high in carbohydrates tend to lessen the affects of cortisol, so they feel better, but indulgence also can lead to guilt, which can bring on another round of unhealthy eating.

Combating Stress Eating

Image by Daku Resort Savusavu Fiji via Flickr
Image by Daku Resort Savusavu Fiji via Flickr

Before you stress out about this and reach for a bag of chips, there are ways to keep the taste center of your brain from taking control. You can’t eliminate all stress from your life, but you can be prepared for a bad day and keep it from spoiling your healthy eating plan. Stock your pantry and refrigerator with healthy food options. Don’t buy the foods you know you turn to when you’re stressed. You can’t eat what’s not there. Think of your long-term health, not just your short-term satisfaction when choosing what to eat.

If you must give in to a tasty choice, limit yourself to something small. Enjoy one scoop of ice cream rather than eating a whole banana split. You will feel better without the guilt — and added stress — associated with over-indulging.

One of the best tools in your arsenal is stress reduction. CBS News reported that exercise and social support, which help people deal with severe stress, may also lessen the effects of mild stress. Attend an exercise class, take a walk or call a friend. Practicing mindfulness to reduce stress and focusing on how you feel also help control stress eating, according to CNN. Always consult your physician before making dietary changes or starting a new exercise regimen.

Thanks to the researchers in this study, you know why your taste buds overwhelm your rationality from time to time. Armed with that knowledge, you also know you can outsmart your brain by managing your stress.

Do you have a tip for managing your eating habits when you’re stressed? If so, share it in the comments!

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