Indulging in comfort food when feeling stressed brings instant gratification. However, stress eating primes the body to store fat — an instant way to gain weight.
The problem with comfort foods is that they are sugary, high fat, and full of calories. Among the most unhealthy comfort foods include macaroni and cheese, which has whopping 380 calories, fried chicken and waffles with over 1,000 calories, and chicken pot pie with 370 calories and 850 milligrams of sodium, which is almost half of a person's sodium intake for the day;
Risks Of Stress Eating
A study by a team of experts from the Garvan Institute for Medical Research in Australia found that a high-calorie diet when combined with stress, resulted in more weight gain as compared to the same diet consumed in a stress-free environment.
The researchers also found what they consider as the brain's comfort food center that is located in the hypothalamus, which controls food intake and within the central amygdala, which controls emotional response.
According to the study that used mice experiments, neurons in the central amygdala called neuropeptide or NPY are responsible for an exacerbated response to combined stress and high-fat-diet intervention.
"This study indicates that we have to be much more conscious about what we're eating when we're stressed, to avoid a faster development of obesity," said Herbert Herzog, head of the Eating Disorders laboratory at Garvan Institute.
The research also established that insulin controls a molecular pathway in the brain that activates during stress and leads to more weight gain. In this same manner, stress combined with a high-calorie diet triggers insulin resistance in the central amygdala. It is a vicious cycle that inevitably leads to obesity if stress eating remains uncontrolled.
Insulin And Stress
Insulin is a hormone that aids the body in absorbing glucose and keeps the blood sugar levels balanced. Insulin resistance makes it harder for the cells of the body to take in glucose. Chronic stress alone only slightly increases the blood insulin levels, but when coupled with comfort foods, insulin levels can rise up to 10 times higher.
When the amygdala becomes insulin-resistant or desensitized, the nerve cells boost their NPY levels, and in turn, promotes more eating and slower fat burning.
The team at Garvin said that when the production of neuropeptide in the amygdala is switched off, weight gain is reduced. Likewise, when NPY is absent, weight gain on a high-fat diet with stress is at the same level as weight gain in a stress-free environment.
With the study indicating that insulin has more wide-spread effects in the brain than previously thought, the scientists are hoping to further explore the impact of insulin in certain brain functions.