Got The Munchies? Your Brain Could Be To Blame!

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By: , SparkPeople Blogger
9/17/2008 7:08 AM   :  52 comments

See More: news, health, obesity,
Ever wondered why you get the munchies after working on a challenging project at the office or taking a tough exam? A new study shows that intellectual activities tend to make people eat more than just resting.

The study divided a group of subjects into different 45-minute activities. The first group had to relax, the second group had to summarize a text, and the third group completed a series of memory, attention, and vigilance tests on the computer. These are all sedentary activities, so they shouldn’t cause one group to eat more than another, right? Well, not exactly.

After the sessions were completed, all of the participants were invited to eat as much as they’d like. Surprisingly, the students who had done the computer work ate 253 more calories than those who rested. Those who had summarized a text consumed 203 more calories than the resting group. Why the difference? One reason could be their fluctuations in blood glucose levels. Blood samples taken before and after the test revealed that levels tend to fluctuate more with the stress of thinking.

Combine the fact that our society is more sedentary than ever (less physical labor, more desk jobs, more time in front of the TV and computer) with this propensity to eat more, and it becomes a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic in our country. Just another reason why regular exercise is so important- both for weight control and overall health. So what can you do? Find out more about How to Avoid On-the-Job Weight Gain.

Have you ever noticed that you tend to be hungrier after completing a challenging (sedentary) task? How do you combat these urges? If you’re someone who works in an office or a student who sits at a desk all day, what strategies help keep your eating under control?


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Comments

  • 52
    I think it's likely to be true. I get hungry quite a bit when I'm at work or when I'm doing my school work, more so than if I'm just relaxing. Maleficent1964, I do agree with you about being able to prove anything you want with a "scientific" study--unfortunately, a lot of times there are problems with these kind of studies, like the sample is too small, or not truly representative of the population. Whenever you look at a study like that, it's best to have as much information as possible about how the study was conducted, and not buy into sensationalistic journalism that presents the result of one poorly conducted study as fact. - 5/10/2010   7:04:35 PM
  • 51
    Is that why I am always so hungry when I arrive home from a day in the office? Hmmm.

    At work, we have a no food at your desk policy and this works wonderful for me. I take snacks in the morning for each break and pack a nutritious lunch, and that is what I eat. No more, no less! And I try to have something planned for a snack when I get home from work, before I start my workout. - 7/29/2009   6:05:14 PM
  • 50
    When I'm at work and there is lots to do, I'll forget to eat my snacks. When I'm just sitting here waiting for the time to pass, then I start thinking, hmmm, food sounds good about now. However, since they were told to eat AFTER, they might have thought "hey, I just got done doing something taxing, I deserve a (muffin/cookie/etc)". I know I'd fall into that trap after a hard day at work - thinking I "deserved" a caloric meal. Now I know I deserve to treat my body well and that unhealthy food is NOT the answer to a hard day. - 7/28/2009   10:44:39 AM
  • 49
    I had the opposite problem in college- I would become so focused on my projects I would forget to eat. I was teeny tiny. My weight gain can easily be traced to the stress of the bad economy and piling bills. As the job market slowed for me- I was less busy and took comfort in yummy things. - 6/28/2009   1:28:03 PM
  • DAN_ODEA
    48
    Well, this explains a lot; it's something I've always been aware of and am glad to see in print. I know when I'm working (I have a highly mentally-challenging job), writing papers (my theses) or articles (one of my side jobs is writing articles on science), reading books (lots and lots, over 150 last year alone) and any other thinking activity makes me hungry. Oddly, when I'm doing paleontology fieldwork (not as often as I did before I got married, but I still go three or four times a year) I don't even think about eating and often skip lunch (and eat a light dinner). Working in my garden seems to do the same thing, as did building furniture (which I did until a few years ago).

    I am not a brain scientist; I do know the brain (and other nerve cells) can use only glucose as an energy source, while muscles etc. can burn proteins and fats. That may have something to do with it; if your brain is in high gear, and you're just sitting on your bum, your body can't break down food into glucose fast enough to suit the brain. Since your brain is a selfish and greedy thing regarding energy, it sends hunger signals so you eat and take in more sugars (much easier to break down into glucose), thus the temptation to grab high-glycemic index foods with hours spent at intellectual endeavors. You'd be surprised how much the brain forces you to do... and you're not even aware of it. Jeckyll and Hyde, thy name is brain. - 4/19/2009   11:32:29 AM
  • 47
    Yes, the 'I didn't' pay attention' remote part of the brain & arm- & the 'open & insert' to mouth feature! lol - 4/18/2009   10:18:51 AM
  • FROG27GIRL
    46
    OMG! I'm currently studying 1st year university mathematics at home and twice a week, on my days off work, I commit to long 5hr study sessions while my 6yr old is at school and EVERY time I get chronic munchie madness!! All this while I'd been thinking it was just my subconscious trying to slack off... Perhaps it actually isn't! Cool! :-) - 3/1/2009   5:09:18 PM
  • SONIA.B
    45
    Very interesting, I eat when my brain starts t think too much. So I guess that I have to stop thinking,lol. - 3/1/2009   10:18:32 AM
  • PEACH103
    44
    Wow! That may explain a lot. I work at a high school. I sit with students and help them to learn Algebra and Geometry. I come home starving. However when school is not in session, I am not hungry at that time at all. I also get the munchies on the first of the month after spending a few hours paying bills, managing my finances, and balancing my checkbook. Maybe, armed with this knowledge, I can combat this trend. - 2/27/2009   6:39:43 AM
  • 43
    I only bring to work what I am eating for the time I am there. I do not bring money to work either and leave all other money getting items (checks, debit cards) at home. Luckily I have a bit of a walk to my car and even to the bathroom. I park far, take the stairs and walk at a quick pace. - 11/9/2008   4:13:00 PM
  • 42
    I actually think I burn MORE calories when I am completing certain intense work assignments involving public speaking. I've dropped two pounds in a day before, and it's not from lack of water or reduced calorie intake - as best I can tell, it is from the intense focus needed to observe an audience, run a meeting, and get a presentation across. The brain uses energy too! Now, boredom is an eating-trigger for me. It could easily be that those students didn't particularly like their assignments and that triggered emotional eating, not the intellectual demands of the assignment.Did the study measure the satisfaction/enjoyment that the participants expressed with respect to their work, and see if that correlated with the calorie intake? - 9/22/2008   11:49:25 PM
  • LYNN4LIFE
    41
    This is funny to me. I eat at my desk when the work is repetitive or uninteresting--BOREDOM!

    As a corallary to that, I was never hungry after finals or other major tests in school. So go figure. - 9/22/2008   2:54:42 PM
  • 40
    May that was the reason for my weight gain when i started back to school - 9/21/2008   10:05:43 PM
  • 39
    I use to suffer from the "munchies" and "cravings"-then I started to take grape seed extract to help combat a yeast infection, well it took care of the infection. It also got rid of my "muchies" and cravings, now I take it daily - it has other heart healthy benefits as well. Just thought I would share - my girlfriends have notice the same thing when they started taking it. - 9/20/2008   12:23:07 AM
  • KNELSO2
    38
    Interesting. I tend to eat more at my desk when I'm bored or procrastinating. If I'm really working hard on getting something done, I don't eat as much. Maybe part of it depends on what your food triggers are. - 9/18/2008   11:48:26 PM
  • CHRISCAMI
    37
    Honestly, how can they publish a study based on 14 university students, and think that it can be valid?
    We don't know what kind of other things affected this study... how about their metabolisms or exercise before the study?
    How long was this study?
    I know a skinny guy who eats TONS... he is a hiker, and burns off a LOT of calories every day, so he can put more food away, plain and simple.
    If he was in the test group, he would have really messed up the results!
    You need a lot larger test sample to draw reasonable conclusions. That's not even 5 people per group!

    I eat more when I'm bored or stressed; plain and simple... has nothing to do with brain activity... has everything to do with what I reach for to feel better - Food!
    My kid just took tests for 3 days; he didn't eat more than usual during that time. He doesn't eat for the reasons I do (thank God!) Same with my DH... when he's stressed, he shuts down and goes in his cave (without food!) He always keeps busy, so I rarely see him bored.

    Next time, please put the vital stats (like size of the study pop., age, weight, other general info.) on results that you cite!

    If this was done with 1000 people, it'd be a little more valid; that's all I'm saying. - 9/18/2008   11:38:58 PM
  • 36
    I am going to have to check this out and what I can change at work. - 9/18/2008   8:00:40 AM
  • 35
    I know when I was being tested for a learning disability years ago as an adult, the tester kept feeding me candy to keep my brain fed with easy to acess glucose levels. She said that thinking and working hard on problems often depleted glucose levels and to test accurately what my abilities were at optimum was to keep my brain fueled with glucose. So I think that probably goes with this test result as well.
    - 9/18/2008   6:40:02 AM
  • 34
    I'm a pharmacist, and recently my job has changed a little. Before, I would sit for almost my entire shift. Now I work in the ER and am always moving. I ate a lot more before. - 9/18/2008   3:11:01 AM
  • 33
    I notice the more hectic the day (I work in a 9-1-1 call center) the more I eat. I pack lots of raw veggies to munch on during the day. The more hectic the day the more veggies I munch on. Now I understand why. - 9/18/2008   2:53:21 AM
  • 32
    I drink water all day at my desk and I don't think about food.

    When I do think about food it will be some type of fruit that I like.

    So when I'm at my desk I am not thinking about food. - 9/18/2008   12:55:04 AM
  • 31
    I have often felt what I call "brain hunger" after studying or doing homework for hours. I am currently in a graduate program that holds classes every other Friday and Saturday from 8AM to 5:30 PM and find it almost impossible to stay in my calories those days and very difficult to avoid carbs. I try to keep it in moderation and feed my braing what it needs during that really stressful time...then make it up in the gym the rest of the week:) - 9/17/2008   8:29:26 PM
  • 30
    I've experienced first hand exactly what was founded in this study. I have always had a high stress position in finance and after working on an intense project or working 10-12 hours 7 days a week I always comforted my stress by eating. On top of this, the companies I have worked for would provide round the clock food for its employees to not have to leave the office. I no longer eat the free high calorie meals provided by the company; I now take a walk, drink lots of water and snack on low calorie meals I bring from home. - 9/17/2008   8:10:02 PM
  • SP_COACH_NANCY
    29
    Very interesting...but it makes sense since the brain cells are the only cells in the body that don't need insulin to usher glucose into the cell. Guess they used all the glucose up thinking and needed to resupply... - 9/17/2008   6:32:38 PM
  • 28
    I've heard playing tournament chess (games last 3+ hours) actually burns more calories than just sitting at a desk. It certainly isn't as much as physical activity, but I do think there is something to 'brain energy'. - 9/17/2008   4:55:07 PM
  • 27
    So its stress, and being intelligent causing weight gain......I thought boredum was to blame - 9/17/2008   4:08:50 PM
  • 26
    Oops, I meant mental work. My bad! :-) - 9/17/2008   4:06:47 PM
  • 25
    Absolutely. Intense metal work makes you tired physically and emotionally. Our brain uses glucose to function so it's normal to feel a bit hungry after studying. A lot of time, though, it's the psychological part of our brain that needs the food. When we have to sit in front of a desk to study or to work, we can't physcially remove ourself our the stress, and our brain wants a break from our work. Emotionally, we associate food with relaxation and good time. The thought of food is relaxing and comforting so off we head toward the kitchen for some good munchines. If I have the urge to eat after some intense brain work, I drink some water and get up to walk around. If I only have 5 minutes, I do some tricep dips and abs work while still in my chair. A little blood pumping into the muscles always helps me from diving into the sea of junk food. - 9/17/2008   4:06:09 PM
  • 24
    I feel like this study is interesting but doesn't take into account the possibility that brain-intense activities BURN more calories than just sitting there watching tv. I know for a fact that during finals week in college I would eat a lot more than usual but not gain any weight - I think that thinking burns more calories than people give it credit for. - 9/17/2008   3:14:22 PM
  • 23
    So, being an intellectual can make you fat... Aha! I have a new comeback now:

    'Sorry, but genius requires calories'. - 9/17/2008   2:37:43 PM
  • AGAPE1982
    22
    This makes so much sense. I get ravaged by munchie cravings when I'm doing intense studying! Thanks for the insight! - 9/17/2008   1:56:53 PM
  • 21
    I definitely get the munchies more when I'm concentrating on spreadsheets, bills, etc.. Like 9JAMAMA, I also appreciate "high volume low calorie snacks" for these times. And lots of water helps keep my mind clear & the stress levels down. - 9/17/2008   1:56:52 PM
  • CRICKETRO
    20
    Oh boy; I write daily (I'm a writer) and I ALWAYS realize that I'm hungry right after I finish a challenging article. So although I basically sit at the desk and type, I tend to eat more when I work than when I take a day off (i.e. over the weekend). - 9/17/2008   1:13:03 PM
  • 19
    I appreciate this study. I am a TBI recovering and it isan effort to do simple brain tasks that I could do before without effort. The brain is healing and I do find that I get hungry before time to eat. I am learning to incorporate protein, fiber and carb together and eat snack in between.......and I also exercise as much as I can to get the blood moving and increasing those mitrochondria machines ......
    So while I am working at home I have water and frequent breaks
    Thank you - 9/17/2008   12:20:15 PM
  • 18
    It makes logical sense that this would be true. When the brain is working, it uses nutrients that you have stored in your body. Not as much as physical activity, but it does nonetheless. That's where the expression "brain food" comes from. So the body is asking you to make up those nutrients. Mostly that's protein, so I always try to eat nuts or something of that nature to feed my body's need to replace the nutrients lost.

    Also, this study did not show people who were bored at work eating. It showed that people doing different activities were experiencing different levels of hunger afterwards. And while more intelligent people may have a higher tendency to be skinnier, that's mostly due to them knowing better than to shove their mouths full of food and not exercise. I bet if they interviewed them all, they would show that they exercise more often than the lower intelligence crowd. - 9/17/2008   11:48:50 AM
  • CANEY3
    17
    I usually do not snack while I am working. But I do find that if I lunch in front of my computer I eat slower and less.

    What I do for lunch is make a big salad. Then plop in front of my computer and start playing solitaire or some other game while eating. I find this relaxing better then watching tv and eating. Infact I find it almost as relaxing as eating and reading a book at the same time.

    - 9/17/2008   11:41:38 AM
  • 16
    Finally! Someone explains why my waistline explands as my achievements at work grow. I always wondered why a couple of months after a promotion or new work challenge my weight loss would plateau then reverse...
    Plenty of water to hand, taking regular breaks, having lots of high volume low calorie snacks... all helpful. But after 8 hours of slogging through financial spreadsheets, I want to curl up with a good book and lots of junk food. Sigh. one thing though, I'm not sure it's the thinking so much as the overall stress of it all, especially in pressure work environments like the one I'm in. At least that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it! - 9/17/2008   11:39:46 AM
  • 15
    I agree Deva... I have a desk job... I love it's paying my bills but hate that I sit here all day just muching away. - 9/17/2008   11:30:52 AM
  • 14
    Sheer willpower, for the most part. I work at a computer all day long, so I drink lots of water so I have to make frequent trips to the restroom. In the restroom, I stretch and sometimes do light strength exercises like squats or wall pushups. The snack cabinet and break room is always within site and a constant temptation. Sometimes, I picture a pound block of slimy, greasy, repulsive, fat and that helps alot! - 9/17/2008   10:42:07 AM
  • 13
    I always noticed a need/desire to eat while sitting at my computer desk. I thought it was just mindless or emotional eating. Knowing there may be an actual reason is helpful. Being aware of how our bodies work is always beneficial. Thanks for the article! - 9/17/2008   10:39:11 AM
  • 12
    All I can add is that finals week spells certain doom for my pants. - 9/17/2008   10:37:48 AM
  • 11
    I have noticed the same thing. I feel it is also tied to my stress level. - 9/17/2008   10:32:30 AM
  • 10
    I work at a job where I sit on the desk, solving complicated customer issues all day long, eight hours a day. I can be ravenous while sitting here…but the moment I leave work and get home, I’m no longer hungry. Sometimes I wonder if the wanting to eat more after being stressed out is people seeking out a comfort after being so stressed…and many people find that comfort in food. - 9/17/2008   9:55:20 AM
  • 9
    I've noticed this in myself - I thought it was just a fluke. When I am really concentrating on a problem, I get SOO hungry! I try to have ice handy on my desk to keep away the snackies. - 9/17/2008   9:40:31 AM
  • 8
    I'm honestly too non-thinking right now to search for it -but I seem to recall some study ( and I know that a study can be done to prove anything - somewhere i ranted about lemming behavior and decided that teal underwear contributes to weight loss - If i could get funding for a study -i"m sure I could probe my point)

    I digress...

    I've seen a study that people of higher intelligence (generally that means they think more) tend to be thinner than people of lesser intelligence... possibly because they have more income and the means to have a better diet? I dont recall the study findings...

    I'd go with the people at work are bored - or have easy access to food - rather than thinking is contributing to weight gain. - 9/17/2008   9:25:03 AM
  • 7
    I'm honestly too non-thinking right now to search for it -but I seem to recall some study ( and I know that a study can be done to prove anything - somewhere i ranted about lemming behavior and decided that teal underwear contributes to weight loss - If i could get funding for a study -i"m sure I could probe my point)

    I digress...

    I've seen a study that people of higher intelligence (generally that means they think more) tend to be thinner than people of lesser intelligence... possibly because they have more income and the means to have a better diet? I dont recall the study findings...

    I'd go with the people at work are bored - or have easy access to food - rather than thinking is contributing to weight gain. - 9/17/2008   9:25:03 AM
  • 6
    I'm with you, Maleficent. LOL!

    But it is an interesting study, nonetheless. :D - 9/17/2008   9:21:20 AM
  • 5
    people are bored at work, so they eat because they AREN'T thinking. - 9/17/2008   9:19:36 AM
  • 4
    Well, it would go to figure! The brains only source of energy is glucose, found in carbs - so I'd also imagine, if they had it on the study, that those individuals also had higher carbs than the others as well. - 9/17/2008   8:56:48 AM
  • 3
    Maleficent1964, thanks for the laugh and being SO truthful. I think there are a LOT of excuses for obesity. I watched the new season opener of THE BIGGEST LOSER last night and Dr. H. showed vivid scans of the FAT around the heart and organs of the people who were as much as 200# overweight, and that REALLY got me. I don't want my heart and lungs to deal with that unnecessary burden. - 9/17/2008   8:49:36 AM

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