A study published in Agricultural Research explores the neurophysiology of stress eating—the pathways inside the brain that link stress to unhealthy eating.
The researchers asked 30 healthy female volunteers, ages 20–53, to evaluate the amount of chronic stress that problems with work, relationships, or finances were causing in their lives. Then, brain scans known as functional magnetic resonance images (MRIs) were taken while each volunteer viewed photos of high-calorie foods, healthy foods, or everyday objects such as coins.
The researchers found that some patterns of brain activity in the high-chronic-stress volunteers differed markedly from those of low-chronic-stress participants. For example, activity in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that regulates self-control and strategic decision-making, was essentially "turned off" when high-stress volunteers viewed calorie-rich foods. This was in contrast to the response revealed in brain scans of the low-stress volunteers who were shown the same photos.