Science Says Social Stress Could Be The Cause Of Those Pesky Carb Cravings

Unsplash/Rachel Park

How many times have you started your day feeling strong and assured about your new, healthier eating goals only to destroy them by giving into that waffle craving at brunch or that grilled cheese hankering when dinner rolls around? It’s that annoying AF carb-obsessed cycle that so many of us struggle to kick. And now, science is highlighting a potentially major reason why.

According to new research from┬áJapan’s National Institute for Physiological Sciences, feelings of social stress (both known and subconscious) activate particular neurons in the brain that are responsible for triggering the meanest of carb cravings. And what is social stress exactly? Well, it’s that irksome feeling (sometimes mild, sometimes overwhelming) that your relationships, self-esteem or sense of belonging aren’t exactly in balance. Whether you’re navigating a tough conversation or just having a more anxious day in general, social stress can creep up and impact your brain in wild ways before you realize it.

In the study, the researchers took a group of laboratory mice and activated the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH)-positive neurons in their brains. And the mice with those activated neurons chose to eat three times the amount of high-carbohydrate food than the group of control mice that were fed under normal conditions. While the neuron activation was manipulated here, previous data shows that those types of neurons are naturally activated during times of social stress.


“Many people who eat sweets too much when stressed tend to blame themselves for being unable to control their impulses,” lead author Yasuhiko Minokoshi said in a statement. “But if they know it’s because of the neurons, they might not be so hard on themselves.”

Now, this study is limited in that it’s performed on mice, and replicating it directly with human participants would be tricky because inhibiting the carb-craving neurons can have unwanted side effects in other parts of the body. After all, an appetite for all things bread isn’t the only thing they’re responsible for. But this research is certainly a helpful step in the right direction.

So the next time you catch yourself ditching the green stuff in favor of a sugary, carb-laden treat, just ask yourself if this impulsive switch could be related to social stress as opposed to what your body is truly hungry for. We’re all about treating ourselves, but it just feels so much better when it’s done with intention rather than as a reaction to misplaced emotions.