On one hand, though reward may be much sweeter when earnest effort has been made in its pursuit (well, at least according to a certain Michael J. Powell), on the other hand, however, the resulting stress from exerting too much effort won’t make food taste any sweeter.
This has been the finding made by Al’absi, Nakajima, Hooker, Wittmers, & Cragin (2012) when they examined the effects of stress on taste perception. In their experiment, participants had to undergo two laboratory sessions: one stress and one control rest session. The stressors included public speaking (4-minute speech preparation and 4-minute delivery), 8-minute mental arithmetic task, and 90-second cold pressor test (immersion of nondominant hand in ice water).
Cardiovascular, hormonal, and mood measures were collected during the experiment; and, by the end of each session, participants had to rate the intensity and pleasantness of sweet, salty, sour, and savory solutions at suprathreshold concentrations.
Results have shown that the reported intensity of the sweet solution was significantly lower for the stress session than for the rest session. Participants also exhibited expected changes in cardiovascular, hormonal, and mood measures in response to stress. Furthermore, cortisol levels poststress have shown to be a possible predictor of the reduced perceived intensity of salty and sour tastes, thereby suggesting that stress-related changes in the adrenocortical activity were related to reduced taste intensity.
The attenuation of the taste perception during stressful situations may help explain why some resort to stress eating, one being that their thresholds are not fully met, especially with the chemical changes in the body brought about by the stressful situation. More generally, the research could contribute to the continuously growing body of knowledge concerning the relationship of stress and appetite, as such influence of stress on taste perception has the great capability to change the way we eat and perceive food.
Al’absi, M., Nakajima, M., Hooker, S., Wittmers, L., & Cragin, T. (2012). Exposure to acute stress is associated with attenuated sweet taste. Psychophysiology, 49(1), 96-103.