We all know that comfort eating, or eating sugary, rich foods solely for the pleasure it brings, can lead to unwanted weight gain. Now, a new study published in the journal Neuroscience Letters has confirmed a direct link between stress levels and the desire to eat for comfort. Amazingly, comfort eating is not just a psychological response to stress; the desire to eat sugary or rich foods is caused by the activation of receptors in the taste buds that are responsible for discerning between sweet and bitter tastes. Dr. Rockwell Parker, a researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center and part of the team who made this vital connection, relates, “Sweet taste could be particularly affected by stress. Our results may provide a molecular mechanism to help explain why some people eat more sugary foods when they are experiencing intense stress.”

Comfort Eating Explained

Stress, Comfort EatingHere's how it works. When you're stressed out, certain hormones called glucocorticoids activate tiny receptors in the cells of your taste buds, changing the way you experience certain tastes and basically increasing your desire for sweets. In the study, this was evidenced by the fact that the mice who were more sensitive to rich, sweet food had a denser concentration of glucocorticoids. The mice who were under the most stress possessing over 75 percent more receptors for these hormones than the other mice.

Because our perception of taste is so important in relation to which foods we choose to eat, Dr. Parker summarizes, “If this sense (taste) can be directly affected by stress-related hormonal changes, our food interaction will likewise be altered.” These findings aren't limited to the body's taste buds; strangely, other parts of the body, like the gut and pancreas, also have taste receptors. This means that important physiological processes like how our body metabolizes sugar and even our appetite could also be more affected by stress than previously thought.

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