Are Women More Likely to Reach for Junk Food When Stressed Than Men?

Posted on: December 10th, 2019 by Pat Mesiti No Comments

New research has found that female mice over-eat or binge eat when stressed out. The big question now: are women more likely to reach for junk food when stressed than men?

Researchers from Melbourne’s Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health think that the female brain is more prone to overeating when emotional. In experiments on lab mice, the researchers found that female mice binge ate when under stress. The male mice did not.

Removing the ovaries in female mice had no impact on their binge eating and therefore scientists believe the behaviour is driven not by hormones, but by the female brain.

New treatment for weight problems

The Florey Institute’s Dr Robyn Brown said the findings could lead to new treatment of overeating in humans.

“We know emotional eating occurs in both sexes, but is over-represented in females,” Dr Brown told Fairfax Media. “I just didn't expect to see such a striking recapitulation of what you see in humans. It was a bit surprising.”

Research needed to identify which part of the brain controls overeating

Dr Brown is doing more research to identify which part of the brain controls stress overeating behaviour.

“We are now pursuing this important health area looking at what’s happening in the brain during stress-induced binge eating and exactly what causes this behaviour,” said Dr Brown, who will present her findings at the Australasian Neuroscience Society scientific meeting in Adelaide.

“We do know that in the human literature and even anecdotally that women suffer from emotional eating more than men but in terms of understanding why that’s happening, we haven’t had very good animal models to look at this, because for most animals when you stress them they will actually stop eating.”

Mice binge eat when under stress

Dr Brown and her team stressed the mice by putting sugar-rich food, including chocolate, in their cage that was out of reach. Eventually, they gave the mice access to the food for 15 minutes and monitored what happened. Dr Brown says male mice ate the sweets, but did not binge, but some female mice ate their daily food intake in 15 minutes.

“Our research is telling us that there is something about the brains of female mice that is reacting differently to that emotional experience and causing the binge eating,” she said. “We’re now carrying out experiments to identify, what are the exact neural circuits in the brain that are driving this.”

Early research shows that a particular region of the brain might be responsible.

“But even the initial finding itself, I think, will help reduce the stigma around the idea that people who overeat are just weak and can't control themselves,” said Dr Brown. “It says, well, actually that person has a brain disease and it might encourage them to seek help earlier.”

Overeating and stress

I found this research really interesting because there is a neuroscientist who believes that we can reduce our stress levels by cutting down on sugar consumption. So basically scientists at the Institute Florey say females who are stressed binge eat (possibly junk food), and a neuroscientist says you can control stress by not eating sugar. Clearly there seems to be a link between stress and sugar, particularly for women.

Neuroscientist, Dr Selena Bartlett, was involved in research that found our brains often cope with stress and trauma through addictive behaviour such as smoking and over-consuming sugar and alcohol.

“People are just using alcohol and sugar as a medication, and I was like ‘I can’t keep designing a medication for a medication’,” Dr Bartlett told Fairfax Media. “Basically now my lab looks at the capacity of using neuroplasticity – which is the ability of the brain to change itself – to help to reduce the impact of that stress and trauma on the brain … and [to] use the power of the brain to drive in healthy habits.”

Dr Bartlett says we can re-wire our brain, and teach ourselves to let go of old bad habits and adopt new healthy habits. We can teach ourselves to manage stress in a healthy way rather than relying on substances (like junk food and sugar).

Dr Barlett says first you need to identify your automatic, unhealthy responses to stress, like over-eating. Next you need to make changes.

“You can actually physically change the brain by doing small things every day, like how you wake up in the morning, what you eat, the exercise that you do, sleep and water,” Dr Bartlett says.

Sugar, for example, binds to our hypothalamus, which is responsible for appetite among other things, and inhibits the release of two peptides that make us feel full, ghrelin and leptin.

Dr Bartlett says too much sugar acts on the emotional part of the brain, the amygdala, and makes the brain more reactive to stress.

“It activates the bottom part of the brain to make it more wired to process stress at a higher rate … it makes you more anxious in the long-term,” she says.

Dr Bartlett recommends cutting back on sugar and practising gratitude first thing in the morning.

“Gratitude works, when you wake up in the morning, to set up your brain in a positive direction so it will now take in more positive information rather than negative information … that’s what it’s doing from a brain perspective,” Dr Bartlett says. “It’s setting up the circuitry from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex [which helps us to manage impulsive behaviour].”

Reducing her sugar intake and starting her day by thinking of three things she is grateful for were among the small changes Dr Bartlett made when she was suffering from stress.

“Because I’ve been studying the brain for so long I recognised what was going on, so I started on the pathway of doing simple things every day,” Dr Bartlett said.

She says it’s also a good thing to keep a diary and write down your thoughts in the morning to clear your head. Dr Bartlett has also taken up doing triathlons and says she has never been happier.

To reduce stress, she recommends:

  1. Cutting back on sugar
  2. Meditating and being grateful every morning to ‘positive wire’ your brain at the start of the day
  3. Writing in the morning in a diary to clear your head
  4. Exercise

If you feel a little run down at the end of the year, why not give these a go, then tell me if they work for you!


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Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.


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