Comfort food: Why it’s hard to stop overeating when you’re stressed

A hand pressing on a hamburger, a typical comfort foodShare on Pinterest
Feeling stressed can trigger cravings for comfort foods. Marta Mauri/Stocksy
  • Eating comfort foods when stressed shuts down the region of the brain that prevents you from overeating, according to a new study.
  • Under normal circumstances, this region neutralizes the chemical reward you get from eating, making it less enjoyable.
  • The phenomenon makes sense in wild animals, including non-modern humans, by promoting a rapid supply of energy in response to a threat.
  • However, it is less useful in today’s world where stress is less often directly related to survival.

For people who are stressed out, it may seem that comfort food offers the ideal and perhaps just a quick fix. A new study on mice from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia, suggests, however, that those people should think twice before savoring a treat.

The study finds that the combination of stress and comfort food shuts down the brain’s mechanism for letting people know when they’ve had enough to eat.

This can lead to overindulgence in one’s favorite comfort foods, as well as weight gain and obesity, potentially sources of further stress.

The affected area of ​​the brain is the lateral habenula, an organ that exists in both mice and humans. Under normal conditions, the region produces a mild, unpleasant sensation in the short-term presence of a high-fat diet, deactivating the brain’s reward response, thus making continuing to eat less pleasant. Many comfort foods are high in fat.

Working with chronically stressed mice, the researchers found that the lateral habenula remained unusually quiet while high-fat foods were eaten. The mice continued to eat, apparently for pleasure, without ever being satisfied.

Upon further analysis, the researchers found that after giving stressed mice a calorie-free sugary food pellet, they consumed twice as many sugary food pellets (or liquid) as non-stressed mice. This shows that a preference for sweets persisted in stressed mice even when they were calorie-free.

Confirming their finding, when the researchers reactivated the lateral habenula using optogenetic light that can control neuronal activity, the mice stopped overeating.

The study is published in Neuron.

If eating comfort foods as a response to stress can lead to weight gain, is that a sensible personal strategy?

From an evolutionary perspective, according to the study’s lead author Dr. Chi Kin Ip of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, yes, it can be.

Feeding behavior is probably the most critical behavior that is conserved in all species to sustain survival, he said.

Dr. Ip said animals living in the wild are not privileged to overindulge in high-fat food sources and that their stress systems allow them to survive by regulating their energy intake and supply accordingly. based on current needs.

High-fat foods provide a way to gain energy quickly, and as Dr. Ip said, having more energy in the body is definitely better in nature than having less energy.

In modern humans, stress is less relevant to our literal survival.

Addressing concerns about weight gain from stress eating, Dr. Rennis said: “Occasional indulging in comfort foods isn’t a problem.

On the other hand, explained Dr. Tomiyama, we know that heavy weight is extremely stigmatized in this country, and I’ve spent a decade researching that weight stigma is stressful and stimulates a biological response to stress.

Dr. Rennis noted that eating too much comfort food in response to stress is similar to drinking alcohol occasionally to relax. It’s fine once in a while, but it can lead to problems if done in excess.

Dr. Tomiyama pointed out that comfort foods don’t necessarily have to be high in sugar, fat or calories to be comforting.

We have a study where we trained people to feel better after eating fruit, she said.

When asked about the likelihood that a study in mice produced results that also apply to humans, both Dr. Ip and Dr. Tomiyama said yes.

Humans are animals just like mice, and studies on non-human animals provide very tight experimental control that provides valuable information that we can’t get in humans, said Dr. Tomiyama.

Dr Ip explained some of the similarities between humans and animals:

The anatomical structure, as well as the function of the habenula, is highly conserved in all species, including humans. The lateral habenula is a region that plays a vital role in regulating emotional response. Under activation, it triggers aversive behavior, which is one of the mechanisms that triggers emotional distress. However, when they’re silenced, it induces the opposite, which is a reward response, he said.

He also noted that a molecule identified in the study as important for lateral habenula behavior is also present in humans.

It’s not entirely clear whether there is a universal definition of comfort food, said Dr. A. Janet Tomiyama, who was not involved in the study.

People assume comfort food is automatically foods high in fat, sugar and calories, she said, but no one has tested this systematically.

The general gist, however, said Dr. Lesley Rennis, also not involved in the study, is that comfort food is food that tastes good and makes us feel good. It is generally high in calories, high in sugar and fat and often has a nostalgic and sentimental value.

Sometimes called hyperappetizing foods, these foods are rewarding and stimulate the release of feel-good hormones like serotonin.
Dr. Lesley Rennis

Much research has investigated the psychological appeal of comfort foods. Dr. Rennis said the study adds to the conversation.

It provides a layer of knowledge on the physiology of stress and its impact on food intake. Like all disease states, there are both physiological and psychological contributors to dietary stress, she said.

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