Whenever under stress, hunger arises. We open the fridge and our eyes stop at that pie leftover, or that piece of chocolate, or ice cream or anything else which has high levels of fat and sugar. If our mood cannot be satisfied by anything else, some fat and sweet food will always do. People are less likely to resist to unhealthy and tasty foods when under stress, as the promise of immediate reward takes over longer term goals to eat well, as a new study suggests.
Researchers have managed to find through various brain scans, that circuits in our minds that are associated with rewards are uplifted and the ones linked to self-control fade out, in participants who are exposed to high stress levels. The more stressed people are, the weaker they feel in front of immediate reward, such as food.
A neuroscience study followed 51 people who were asked to choose between foods while they had MRI brain scans. This allowed people to observe how the decision-making process affects brains. Participants were chosen as they expressed interest in maintaining a healthy lifestyle but on the other hand admitted they let themselves loose and made unhealthy food choices.
Researchers wanted to measure how moderate levels of stress, namely those associated with daily routine, would affect what people choose to eat, the more so when the options are real and not hypothetical. Participants were asked to eat one of the foods they selected, based on the test.
Study subjects had to rank the foods they were given as tasty or healthy, in order to offer experts a relevant insight on the participant’s taste preferences. This allowed them to make contrasting pairs, based on the rankings. Study subjects were then split into two groups: 29 of them were put under the mild stress of having to immerse their hand in an ice water bath while being videotaped in the lab before the test, while the others were the control group.
Individuals who experienced the stress of the icy cold water bath went for the tasty food choices much more often, compared with the ones in the control group. This happened especially when the difference between the foods was greatest.
Another highlight worth mentioning is that several areas of the brain are involved in food and other choices. The strongest factors in decision making are the communication between different regions which signal immediate or long-term reward, and which emerges as the most powerful. This could be managed with extreme control, determination and knowledge over the matter.
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