You’re cramming for a test, worried about a band tryout or at risk of not finishing up some big class project on time. This is stress. And you realize it is hard to hold off eating a doughnut or dish of ice cream.
That junk food looks oh so good. It can be hard to help reaching for it. And a new Swiss study now suggests why.Indeed, the study finds, your brain may be conspiring against you. In some people, it may crumple the willpower to eat right. Silvia Maier works at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. She and her colleagues invited 41 young men into the lab for 3 hours of tests. They started by showing each man 180 food items on a computer screen. Each time, they asked the men to judge how healthy, tasty and appealing the food was.Then the researchers stressed out 29 of the guys. They did this by asking each to stick one hand in ice water for three minutes. If the water was too unpleasant, the volunteers could remove their hands, but must continue looking into a video camera. The men were also encouraged to put their hands back into the cold water. All the while, a researcher watched — and videotaped the ordeals.Another 22 men held one hand in warm water. They were not videotaped.Afterward, the researchers showed each man a series of two food items. They did this 210 times. And before they started making their picks, the men were told “to choose the healthier of the two items whenever possible.” When the testing was over, the scientists gave the volunteers a snack. Each man got one of the items he had said that he preferred.Despite being coached to choose healthy foods, the stressed men proved more likely to pick the less healthy option.The researchers also performed brain scans of the volunteers. It showed what part of the brain was active as they made their choices. “Our findings indicate that stress biases the decision process,” Maier’s team concluded. And it does this, they explain, by altering two brain pathways. One of the affected sets of circuits relays sensory information, such as taste. The other affects a person’s ability to set goals and make decisions to follow through on those goals — such as eating what is good for us.The findings appear in the August 5 issue of Neuron.More studies will be needed to confirm the new findings. But the early signs suggest that stress not only makes junk food more appealing, but also saps the brain’s ability to resist eating it.
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