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Turning to Sweets, Fats to Calm the Brain

Constant worries may drive people to eat sweet and fatty foods that can soothe the brain.

When you get really nervous about a soccer tournament or a school play, do you ever get the urge to eat a whole box of chocolates or a bowl of ice cream? If so, you're not alone.

In times of stress, many people turn to french fries, ice cream, mac and cheese, and other fatty "comfort foods" to make themselves feel better. There might be important biological reasons for those cravings, according to a new theory.

Ice cream and other fatty sweets may help people face the stress of constant worries but, at the same time, cause them to gain weight.

Ice cream and other fatty sweets may help people face the stress of constant worries but, at the same time, cause them to gain weight.

Studies with animals and people have shown that stressful situations cause the body to churn out lots of extra hormones, including those known as glucocorticoids. These chemicals eventually shut down the stress response, and the animal relaxes.

If the stress lingers for days and days, however, glucocorticoids no longer shut down the stress response. Animals may then begin to seek out yummy foods. All of those extra calories get stored as fat around the waist. Then, in a feedback loop, this abdominal fat interferes with the action of the glucocorticoids, and the animal relaxes again. In this way, studies with rats show, comfort foods really can ease anxiety.

That's the theory at least.

In our society, however, enduring stress is such an established fact of life and comfort foods are so easy to get that stressed-out people often gain weight. That increases their risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems.

Pay attention to your cravings. If you catch yourself mindlessly reaching for the cookie jar, stop and take a few deep breaths. It may be time to take a vacation instead!—E. Sohn

Going Deeper:

Ramsayer, Kate. 2003. Sweet relief: Comfort food calms, with weighty effect. Science News 164(Sept. 13):165-166. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/20030913/fob5.asp .

Sohn, Emily. 2003. In search of the perfect french fry. Science News for Kids (July 23). Available at http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20030723/Feature1.asp .

You can learn more about stress at http://www.bam.gov/head_strong/top10Coping.htm and http://www.bam.gov/survival/physical_signs.htm
(BAM!/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

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