Stress And Self-Control: It Might Sabotage Our Diet

First Posted: Aug 06, 2015 03:32 PM EDT

Alright, ok. We'll admit. During times of excess stress, we've been known to succumb to a cronut or two or sometimes three. But there's a reason for that, science suggests, and here's why.

When you're stressed out, a lot, either at work or at home or other areas of your life, comfort foods can come calling, making you feel all warm and fuzzy. But unfortunately, these times of stress are more likely to alter your decision making when it comes to choosing health options that are good for us.

"Self-control abilities are sensitive to perturbations at several points within this network, and optimal self-control requires a precise balance of input from multiple brain regions rather than a simple on/off switch," said lead author Silvia Maier, of the University of Zurich's Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research, in a news release, emphasizing that a lot of research still needs to be done, however, to completely understand the involved mechanisms.

In this study, 51 young men were beginning to make lifestyle changes in terms of their diet but still indulging in moderate consumption of junk food. From this group, 29 were chosen to undergo a stress induction procedure.

Swiss researchers examined brain scans, finding that circuits in our brains, which are linked to self-control, are downplayed, while circuits related to rewards are amped up whenever we are experiencing higher stress levels. What makes matters worse is that the more stressed out we are, the stronger the effect seems to be.

They asked participants to choose a food to eat after they had experienced moderate stress. Results showed that participants were more likely to pick a food that tasted good as opposed to foods that were healthier and might be a bit more bland.

Furthermore, the study also revealed that neural pathways in the brain that influenced a person's desire for immediate gratification showed increased activity in the neural pathways of the brain that influence a person's desire for immediate gratification, revealing increased activity following moderate stress. However, the brain areas that help control willpower and the affect of desire to maintain a long-term goal, including healthy eating, revealed reduced brain activity.

"The findings show that self-control is mediated by a complex and distributed network in the brain," Maier added. Furthermore, she noted that disturbances in a number of brain regions within the complex network may weaken self-control. 

Researchers suggest that it may be best to remove temptations before they occur. Furthermore, taking everyday steps to combat stress, such as meditation, exercise and regularly planning schedules can help to further reduce the aforementioned issue.

More information regarding the findings can be found via the journal Neuron.

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