Stress can cause people that are proactively healthy to select foods that are not good for them. Silvia Maier of the University of Zurich’s Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research and colleagues are the first to show a direct connection between stress and self-control in behavior and in the activity of brain regions known to be active in self-control.
A group of 29 people that were actively pursuing a healthy lifestyle was subjected to a mild stress prior to making a choice about what to eat. The stress was produced by immersing the participant’s hands in ice water for three minutes. Even with a positive mental directive that was aimed toward healthy food choices, the participants that experienced stress opted for unhealthy foods like sweets.
The patterns of neuronal activity in the participants that experienced stress were altered in the amygdala, striatum, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex regions of the brain. These areas are known to be the centers of self-control. The study shows that moderate stress producing situations can detrimentally affect self-control not only in a decision to eat different foods but in other aspects of life that require self-control.
The study notes that the variation in the effects of stress on a given individual’s ability to overcome stress in favor of self-control presents the greatest potential for helping people that have problems with self-control. Enhancing self-control regardless of stress might be a pathway to reducing obesity. Most European countries have opted out of the United States concept that overeating is a disease in favor of a methodology that relies on self-control. The U. S. methods have failed to reduce obesity.