Published on August 21, 2015

‘Candy brain’ can trick you into unhealthy eating‘Candy brain’ can trick you into unhealthy eating

Step away from the junk food!

Your impulse might be to reach for a tasty treat when you’re feeling tense, but stress can sap your willpower to choose a healthier alternative.

Scientists in Switzerland just released the results of a new study that examined the brain triggers that can lead us astray from healthy eating when we’re dealing with even minor stress.

A recent story in the New York Times about the study carried the amusing headline “Candy brain,” but the effects of stress are no joke. Short-term stress can cause headaches, stomach issues and insomnia, while long-term stress can lead to depression or worsen the symptoms of some diseases.

“We carry stress with us all the time,” said Bart L. Main Jr., MD, a Cape Cod Hospital-based psychiatrist who is a member of Cape Cod Preferred Physicians.

“There’s a wonderful book called ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.’ A zebra is relaxed – except for when it’s being chased by a lion. Humans can be stressed all the time because we think abstractly. We might go through the day thinking about the possibility of disappointing our boss,” he said.

The Swiss study, reported in the medical journal Neuron, focused on why stress can be linked to weight gain. Scientists at the University of Zurich’s Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research studied 51 healthy young men. All of the men looked at pictures of food and gave them a rating for tastiness and healthiness.

Then some of the men were asked to keep a hand in a bowl of icy water for as long as they could bear it. Past research has shown that this causes psychological stress, along with physical discomfort. Not surprisingly, the men in the experiment group showed higher levels of a stress hormone, cortisol, than the men in the control group.

The men in both groups were then shown a series of paired pictures of the foods they’d seen earlier and asked to quickly click on the ones they’d choose. The men who’d gone through the stress test were more likely to pick foods that were tasty but unhealthy – and the men who had shown the highest stress levels were most likely to pick the junk food. Brain scans also showed that the stressed-out guys showed decreased activity in the part of the brain that affects long-range planning.

“Any kind of change is stressful,” said Dr. Main. “It can be celebrating a positive event like a birthday or a new job, as well as losing a loved one or another negative event.”

The good news is that any kind of exercise, even a short walk, is good for you, he added. “Our muscles are able to change our body chemistry very nicely. Just stretching is a really good endorphin provider.”

Other effective ways of counteracting stress include meditation, swapping jokes and artistic expression, including writing, drawing and dancing.

Social connections also are crucial. “If we can be with people who understand what we’re going through, that’s a major release for stress,” he said.