Comfort food a myth? Feeling stress does not push people to binge-eat, study says

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Does a painful breakup or bad day at work lead you to grab the ice cream? Stress and emotions typically get the blame when someone starts binge-eating to comfort themselves. However, a new study contends stress isn’t what’s causing people to reach for the comfort food.

Binge-eating is a hallmark symptom of several eating disorders, including bulimia and anorexia. People who binge-eat can feel out of control and unable to stop. They often binge after stressful events.

This led scientists to wonder whether stress damages parts of the brain which are responsible for inhibitory control. This refers to people’s ability to stop what you are about to do or are currently doing – such as eating. While stress does affect the brain, the study finds it does not connect to the urge to gorge on snacks.

“Binge-eating is not caused by stress-induced impulsivity,” study author Dr. Margaret Westwater from the University of Cambridge and her team write in a media release. “Stress alters brain activity in inhibition network but doesn’t prompt binge-eating, contrary to theory.”

People with eating disorders can still control themselves

The team tested this theory by using fMRI scans to measure brain activity among women with anorexia, bulimia, or those without an eating disorder. Researchers took their scans as the group completed tasks either while stressed or relaxed.

During the task, the women pushed a button to stop a moving bar when it reached a specific point on the screen. In some trials, the bar stopped early and the participants had to prevent themselves from pushing the button.

“Stress altered the brain activity associated with inhibitory control in both groups of women with eating disorders but had no effect on task performance — meaning they still had the ability to stop their actions,” the team adds.

These results indicate self-inhibition is preserved in the face of stress. Therefore, the actual mechanism behind binge-eating is more complex than previously thought.

The findings appear in the journal JNeurosci.

SWNS writer Laura Sharman contributed to this report.