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Do you head to the vending machine for an emergency snack as a work deadline approaches, or crave a sweet treat when your worries are piling up?

Stress is often accompanied by junk food cravings. And there is a scientific reason for this.

In a study on mice published in the journal Neuron, scientists from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney found stress can create changes in the brain, leading to unhealthy habits and weight gain.

However, it is important to remember the issue is more complex in humans and trying to restrict what we eat, particularly in stressful times, can be counterproductive.

Why do we eat when stressed?

Eating a delicious snack helps calm us down by triggering the brain’s rewards system.

Professor Herbert Herzog is a visiting scientist at the Garvan Institute’s Eating Disorders lab and the study’s senior author.

He explains that in stressful situations, healthy food simply does not deliver the same reward boost that chips and lollies do.

A man in a white coat in a lab

Professor Herbert Herzog says chronic stress creates changes in the brain.(Supplied: Garvan Institute)

“Because [junk food] is high in sugar, high in fat, and it’s easy to digest. So increasing your reward feeling might help you to cope with stress better,” Professor Herzog told ABC Radio Sydney.

Clinical psychologist Louise Adams from Untrapped Academy says seeking food that gives us pleasure in tricky times makes a lot of sense.

Growing up in the diet culture prevalent in Australia, “a lot of us feel guilty about almost everything we are eating and always trying to eat the ‘right’ way,” Dr Adams says.

In a stressful situation, we’re more likely to let go of some of these self-imposed rules.

“We can more easily become disinhibited around food when we’re stressed, because we’re kind of constantly white knuckling trying to be good around food,” Dr Adams says.

What does stress do to the brain?

Professor Herzog explains that our brain naturally regulates how much sugary and fatty foods we consume.

“Normally, we have processes in place when you eat too much unhealthy foods high in sugar, the brain actually has mechanisms in place that says, ‘Okay, well, it’s enough now’,” he says.

Hot chips with tomato sauce.
High-fat foods that are easy to digest trigger the brain’s rewards system.(Pexels)

This is what’s called the anti-rewards system, or scientifically speaking, an area of the brain called the lateral habenula.

“So the brain tries to take your pleasure out of eating these kinds of [foods],” Professor Herzog says.

But they discovered that when the mice were stressed — by placing them in pairs and putting ice-cold water in their cage for an hour — this natural off-switch did not activate.

Professor Herzog believes a similar thing happens in humans as the neural pathways involved are very similar and a key molecule is identical.

What does this mean for human health?

Scientists are concerned that chronic stress will lead to eating increasing amounts of comfort food and gaining weight.

The stressed-out mice in the Garvan Institute’s study ate twice as much as their relaxed counterparts and their body weight increased twice as much.

Woman stressed out with hand on forehead
Eating comfort food can be calming in a stressful situation.(Pexels)

In the mice, scientists intervened to block a molecule produced by stress, which led to mice eating less.

That’s not an option for humans though.

Professor Herzog’s advice is to try to reduce your stress levels as much as you can, which he admits is easier said than done.

No need to feel guilty about ‘perfectly human’ response

Professor Herzog says it is important to be conscious of the amount and type of food you are eating when stressed.

“Ideally, you would stick to the fresh fruit section in the supermarket and avoid snack sections,” he says.

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But Dr Adams believes we need to rethink our relationship with food and stop feeling guilty.

“It’s important to emphasise it is perfectly human and understandable to do something that brings us pleasure when we’re in a stressful time,” she says.

“The thing is, if that’s immediately kind of judged, and we start feeling guilty about it, we actually start that whole restricting cycle again.”

She advocates for intuitive eating — tuning into your body’s needs and wants around food and enjoying everything you eat.

Even for the mice in the study, Dr Adams reframes their behaviour as a “triumph of evolution”.

“If you’re in a stressful situation, and you can get pleasure from something that’s terrific,” she says.

Dr Adams says the rodents’ weight gain is also “evolutionarily beneficial, because their body’s helping store calories and energy so they can actually do something like plot and escape.”

Do you head to the vending machine for an emergency snack as a work deadline approaches, or crave a sweet treat when your worries are piling up? Stress is often accompanied by junk food cravings. And there is a scientific reason for this.

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