Stressful situations really do make us more likely to eat unhealthy food, research finds

Exposure to stress altered connections in the brain, affecting self control

Many of us will have felt the urge when angry or annoyed to ditch the healthy eating habit and reach for their favourite chocolate snack.

Now scientists believe they have evidence that stressful situations really do affect the self-control mechanisms in our brain, making us more prone to unhealthy choices.

In a small study, Swiss researchers at the University of Zurich found that people who were exposed to an unpleasant experience prior to making a food choice were more likely to go for the unhealthy, but tastier option.

Scientists also analysed the brain patterns of people in the study and saw that exposure to stress altered connections between brain regions in a way that may have affected capacity for self-control.

In the study, 29 participants were observed by a researcher while immersing a hand in a bath of icy water for three minutes – a measure known to induce moderate stress levels.

They were then asked to make a choice between two sets of food options – one healthy, including fruit and veg, and the other made of unhealthy but potentially more tasty options like cake.

Another set of 22 participants were asked to make the choices without having to undergo the ice bath ordeal. All participants had previously identified themselves as people who make an effort to eat healthily.

Doctoral student Silvia Maier, who led the study said: “Our findings provide an important step towards understanding the interactions between stress and self-control in the human brain, with the effects of stress operating through multiple neural pathways.”

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