A sweet tooth might not be the only reason why we reach for ice cream and cake in times of stress.
Comfort from the consumption of fatty foods is not derived purely from the pleasurable sensory experience of eating but also through gut-brain signaling, according to a study by scientists at the University of Leuven, in Belgium.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, used MRI scans to investigate the effects of fatty acids on emotion when directly injected into the stomach.
Scientists played mournful music and showed sad images to a group of 12 participants before giving half the group fatty acids through a feeding tube and a saline solution to the rest.
Without knowing which substance they received, the volunteers rated their mood on a scale of one to nine before and during scanning.
The results showed that those who were injected with fatty acids were only half as sad after watching the images and listening to the music as the participants who were given the saline solution.
"Eating fat seems to make us less vulnerable to sad emotions, even if we don't know we're eating fat," Lukas van Oudenhove, who led the research, told medical research news website HealthDay.
"We bypassed sensory stimulation by infusing fatty acids directly into the stomach, without the subjects knowing whether they were getting fat or saline," he said.
Although the study has implications for obesity, depression and eating disorders, more research is needed to determine whether the findings may have any value in treatment of the illnesses, van Oudenhove said.