In times of stress, there are mainly two eating patterns in which people react: some tend to eat less, some eat more (Yau & Potenza, 2013). The latter then, unfortunately, develop a desire for more salty, sweet and fatty foods, leading to negative health consequences such as weight gain (Groesz et al., 2012) which in turn may influence their mental health.

But why does this happen? What is the science behind this?

The brain controls our body functions and continuously adapts to new situations. For the survival of humans, it is essential that the brain is sufficiently energized at all times. Under stress, the brain needs more energy than under normal circumstances leading the brain to act in a selfish manner. The selfish brain theory by the German scientist Achim Peters (2011) describes the relationship between the brain’s energy requirement and food intake: according to this concept, the brain is given a priority role in the hierarchy of energy metabolism. Therefore, the brain takes care of itself first and claims the energy it needs from the body. The brain pull mechanism is the underlying instrument to request the energy needed, by limiting glucose flow into muscle and fat tissue, so that glucose is primarily available to the brain. If the body can’t provide the necessary energy immediately, the brain forces us to eat. And this results in eating the above-mentioned food. It delivers quickly available glucose to the brain.

Why do some people react to stress by eating more and others by eating less?

Stress responsiveness is thought to be related to different adaptation processes. Exposure to long term stressors may lead to an increased adaptation, reducing the ability of the brain pull mechanism to draw the energy needed directly from the body, thus producing the need to eat. Not adapting to stress and keeping your stress response high will probably lead to less eating.

Why does the brain eat first?

The privileged role of the brain can be explained by the evolutionary past. In life-threatening situations, highest attention was required to react quickly. So, our body has a mechanism to keep our brain functioning: It is assigned a priority role so it can continuously fill its energy needs in order to protect us from possible dangers. It is proven that during inanition the mass of the brain remains constant compared to other organs, which lose about 40% of their mass.

So, what can help us not to eat in an unfavorable manner under stress?

Since everyday stress can hardly be avoided, it is advisable to eliminate temptations and avoid snacking, such as donuts, pizza or any kind of energy-dense foods. For example, in the office: make sure that healthy food is available and prefer fresh unprocessed food, like moderate portions of berries, bananas, nuts (walnuts, almonds), dried fruits (e.g. figs) or perhaps a non-sweetened granola bar. Nuts contain good omega 3 fatty acids and are good for your nerve cells.  When stressed, 5-6 small meals spread throughout the day help to keep the energy level constant. In the office a good lunch could be a mixed salad with chicken breast stripes. Take a break and eat mindfully. Try not to eat hastily, the loss of time spent eating will be rewarded by being able to concentrate better. Drinking lots of water or green tea and avoiding too much coffee and sugared soft drinks will help to prevent a lack of concentration. Water is a healthy way to regulate thirst and has absolutely no calories.

REFERENCES:
Groesz, L. M., McCoy, S., Carl, J., Saslow, L., Stewart, J., Adler, N. et al. (2012). What is eating you? Stress and the drive to eat. Appetite, 58(2), 717–721. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2011.11.028

Peters, A., Kubera, B., Hubold, C. & Langemann, D. (2011). The selfish brain: Stress and eating behavior. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 5, 1-11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2011.00074

Schlieper, C. A. (2010). Grundfragen der Ernährung. Hamburg: Büchner.

Yau, Yvonne H. C.; Potenza, Marc N. (2013). Stress and Eating Behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol, 38(3): 255–267. Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24126546

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Probably the best known example on how the brain and mental health are linked to nutrition and our gut, and the one that we can all identify ourselves with, is stress. We all know it: studying 24/7 for an important exam, pressure in the job or even a house full of work. We have no time to think and – no – we definitely don’t have time to cook. But at the same time we are constantly hungry, craving for a snack. The fastest solution? The next best, nicest looking, edible piece of food we can find.

But why do we change our dietary habits during stress and what happens in our body? What are the consequences and what can we do to avoid this impulsive eating behavior?

A study from Yau and Potenza in 2013 states that about 20% of the population do not change their eating behavior during stress (good for them), while about 40% decrease and another 40% increase their caloric intake. But besides simply increasing the amount of food we consume, we also tend to choose more pleasurable and palatable food when we’re stressed. This usually leads to the consumption of unhealthy and calorie-dense foods, which unfortunately results in gaining weight (at least for most of us).

Stress can have many different causes, ranging from physical stressors like severe illnesses to emotional stressors such as the loss of a loved one. So far, it is known that acute and severe stressors tend to suppress appetite, which results from our evolutionary conserved ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction (Adams und Epel, 2007). On the other hand, lighter – but therefore often chronic – stressors (occurring on a daily basis) seem to increase our appetite, especially towards energy-dense foods. These two roughly categorized types of stress activate two different systems in our body, causing different stress responses:

  • Acute stressors activate the sympathetic adrenal medullary system
  • Chronic stressors activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis (Torres & Nowson, 2007)

The sympathetic adrenal medullary system induces the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline. These are the ones increasing our heart rate right before we have to give a talk in front of a huge audience, while they, at the same time, reduce our drive to eat or even make us want to throw up… On the opposite side, the HPA-axis, activated by daily stressors, leads to the release of cortisol. And, cortisol can have some unwanted effects.

This hormone is known to stimulate our appetite by affecting our reward system, in a very similar way as alcohol and drugs affect this system. In the case of chronic stress, chocolate or chips can have the same effects as drugs: they make us feel better for a short amount of time. This “positive” feeling, that might reduce our stress level for a few moments, reinforces the consumption of sweets later on, thereby resulting in some kind of dependence. But as in all cases of addictions, this repeated stimulation of the reward system can lead to an adaptation, eventually increasing this compulsive behavior.

Knowing now that in some strange ways it is our body that makes us crave burgers and pizza in times of stress, what can we do to avoid gaining weight?

Well, the first thing is: listen to your body and try to understand what is going on. Ask yourself why you are stressed and if there is anything you can do to reduce it, like taking more breaks during the day. If this is not possible, try to find other ways to compensate: take walks, do more exercise, find something else that makes you feel better at the end of the day, besides that tasty chocolate donut and popcorn. Before snacking, hesitate and ask yourself if you are really hungry or just eating because you feel like it. And if you absolutely can’t resist, try to substitute the chocolate bar with healthier snacks, like dried fruits or nuts.

But finally, keeping all that in mind, don’t forget that food is not always your enemy and there is no problem with eating what you desire as long as it is in moderation.

REFERENCES:
Yau, Yvonne H. C.; Potenza, Marc N. (2013). Stress and Eating Behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol, 38(3): 255–267. Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24126546

Adam, Tanja C.; Epel, Elissa S. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiology & Behavior 91, 449–458. DOI: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.04.011

Torres, Susan J.; Nowson, Caryl A. (2007). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Nutrition Volume 23, Issues 11–12, Pages 887-894. DOI: 10.1016/j.nut.2007.08.008

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