Monkeying Around

May 21, 2008 at 1:03 am Leave a comment

In a fascinating study of monkeys at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, researchers discovered that stressed out, subordinate monkeys will under-eat when given healthy fare but will overeat when provided with sugary, fatty nibbles.

The study found that the lower status monkeys had less desire to eat when “their regular high-fiber, low-fat chow” was readily available.  But, when offered sugar- and fat-filled banana-flavored pellets, the monkeys started bingeing.

In considering the curious bingeing behavior, scientists noted that monkeys’ cravings aren’t as complex as ours.

“The female monkeys weren’t dieters who tasted one forbidden food and then couldn’t stop themselves from binging. They were not rebelling against the thin mandate from tyrannical fashion magazines. They weren’t choosing junk food because they couldn’t find healthier fare. They weren’t seduced by commercials telling them they deserved a break today.”

“For the monkeys the situation seems simple. They get some sort of comfort that is particularly appealing to the subordinate monkeys. One possibility is that the fatty foods help block the monkeys’ stress responses. Studies with rodents have shown that high-calorie foods cause a metabolic change that tamps the release of stress hormones like cortisol.”

What that comfort actually is continues to be debated.  Is it the fact that the junk food decreases cortisol?  Or, does the sugary, fatty stuff stimulate “the reward pathways in the brain” whose dopamine reserves have been depleted?

“Essentially, eating high-calorie foods becomes a coping strategy to deal with daily life events for an individual in a difficult social situation,” Dr. Wilson said. “The subordinates don’t get beat up, but they get harassed by high-ranking monkeys. If they’re sitting somewhere and a dominant monkey comes over, they give up their seat and move away. They’re always looking over their shoulders.”

In the end, the science behind the stressed out, lower status monkeys’ overeating behavior doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that there IS a scientific basis for the cravings that many of us experience.  It’s nice to know that I’m not crazy, that there are reactions taking place in my body that make it harder for me to control that type of eating.

Another interesting tidbit from the article mirrors my personal experience.

“Previous studies have shown that such ‘restrained eaters’ are more likely than nondieters to keep scarfing snacks once they yield to temptation.”

I have particularly noticed that lately because I’ve been trying to keep my calories lower than usual (without much success, unfortunately).  Resistance is hard, but giving in is ruinous.  Once I take that first bite, all bets are off.  I’ve been reminding myself of that when I feel like I simply must have a tiny taste.  I remind mysel that, if it seems bad now, it’ll be really bad later… almost a compulsive shoving of food in my mouth.

I am always happy to discover research like this.  It helps me go a little easier on myself when I know there’s some biological stuff going on behind the scenes.  It also makes me appreciate how much I’ve accomplished – and continue to achieve – when my own body is sometimes working against me.

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Entry filed under: coping strategies, news around the blogosphere.

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