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Eating More Sweets? Blame It on Stress!
Pressure seems to push us toward certain foods

MONDAY, Dec. 4 (HealthScout) -- Already starting to feel a bit stressed by the holidays? Chances are you'll turn to sugary, high-fat foods to quell those feelings.

That's natural, says a new British study.

But it's also not necessarily good, health experts are quick to point out.

To see how stress affects people's food choices, the researchers randomly divided 68 men and women into two groups. One group listened to a short, neutral presentation before lunch, while members of the other group were told they had 10 minutes to prepare a four-minute speech to be given after lunch.

Perhaps to no one's surprise, those in the stressed group -- the participants told to prepare a speech -- were more likely to choose chocolate and cake over more healthy foods.

"I felt that we needed to do more careful study of how people's food choices -- rather than the amount of food -- were affected by stress," says lead researcher Jane Wardle, a professor of clinical psychology at University College London.

"We don't know why people under stress seem to choose carbohydrate- and fat-rich foods, but there are speculations that it might have something to do with the biochemistry of carbohydrates, which increases serotonin availability in the brain," Wardle says. The chemical serotonin influences mood. "It might also be that highly palatable foods cause the release of opioids which are stress-reducing," she says.

Previous research, Wardle says, suggests that certain people are particularly prone to unhealthy eating, including those who typically restrain themselves around food and those who find relief from emotional stress through eating. Both of these behaviors are more common among women than men.

Brad Schoenfeld, author of Look Great Naked, thinks he knows what prompts people's actions toward food.

"We've known for a long time that food has a huge psychological component," Schoenfeld says. "Carbohydrates raise serotonin, and we choose these foods because they taste good and give immediate gratification."

However, eating a lot of carbohydrates also makes you lethargic, experts say. Downing Christmas cookies and eggnog raises the blood sugar very quickly, causing an insulin rush, which in turn causes the blood sugar to drop quickly.

The result is that you feel hungry again and want to eat more. And that vicious cycle, say health experts, usually results in weight gain.

As an alternative to the high-sugar, high-fat foods, nutrition experts suggest low-calorie, high-fiber foods such as vegetables and fresh fruits, which make you feel full, or high-protein foods, which have an appetite-suppressing effect.

"A good combination would be chicken salad," says Schoenfeld, a Scarsdale, N.Y., personal trainer and nutrition counselor. "You get both your bulk and protein in that."

Another recommendation, adds Wardle, "is to stick to mealtimes for your eating." Results of her study appear in the current issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

What To Do

For more about good nutrition, check out the American Heart Association's dietary guidelines and then try some of the group's healthy recipes.

Or, you might want to read previous HealthScout articles on healthy eating and others on stress.