Stress is the body’s response to threatening and harmful scenarios. When human beings are stressed there is a signal from our brains (at the hypothalamus) that triggers a release of stress hormones, specifically cortisol.
Stress can directly have a correlation with our appetites. Sometimes this “stress signal” can direct the individual to crave certain foods that contain more sugar, fat and salt.
Some people lose their appetite because they focus on the overwhelming stress and in the immediate term, epinephrine or adrenaline is secreted by the adrenal glands. However, if stress becomes more long term, cortisol may stay at an elevated level leading that individual to turn to emotional eating to help combat the stress.
Men and women with high cortisol levels may be more likely to snack in these circumstances. Also, with prolonged periods of high stress, a person’s energy may decline and sugar and carbs may be an immediate solution to recover that energy. The type of hunger associated with a stressful scenario is usually acute.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU STRESS EAT?
Other hormones which may also contribute to stress related cravings include insulin and ghrelin. The individual dealing with stress may interpret that the greasy, sugary and fatty “comfort foods” are helping reduce the stress related response and emotions however there is a feedback mechanism that can actually cause more cravings. Research has suggested that the female gender may be more likely to turn to food.
Individuals may feel “good” with comfort foods because there may be positive emotions or memories associated with these foods during stressful times. Some people may remember their mothers having chocolate chip cookies at the end of a long school day, eating ice cream after winning a game or eating apple pie during a Thanksgiving meal.
Stressful eating and ingesting fatty and sugary foods may cause disruption in blood sugar levels. Prolonged increase in blood sugar can eventually result in Diabetes Type 2.
WHAT FOODS DO PEOPLE CRAVE?
Examples of comfort food can be pizza, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese, cheeseburger, chocolate (brownies), cake, ice cream. These foods contain sugar and high fat which is harmful to the body and has been linked to depression and anxiety which can exacerbate the cravings. The comfort foods can also actually cause fatigue and make a person feel a sluggish immediately after eating.
Carbohydrates help facilitate a chemical called tryptophan (also found in turkey) that can cause sleepiness. Individuals may feel “good” after eating carbohydrates because it does promote serotonin production.
Eating foods chronically high in sugar content (sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, candies, processed baked goods may raise the risk of heart disease. The mechanism is not exactly clear however there are studies that suggest that blood pressure may be raised after chronic consumption and there may be “bad fats” that can be delivered into the bloodstream from the liver after ingestion.
TIPS to AVOID STRESS EATING:
- If individuals crave sugar, they should turn to healthy sugars found in fresh fruits.
- Foods containing “good unsaturated fats are seen in fish and avocado. Eat healthier carbohydrates like brown rice, whole-wheat toast and grains, quinoa.
- Eating foods with protein can help better maintain blood sugar levels.
- Foods rich in omega-3-fatty acids can also help in combating stress in addition to helping lower blood pressure and triglyceride level and help slow down the development of heart disease.
- Foods rich in omega 3 include salmon, mackerel, tuna, flaxseed, walnuts and plant oils. Someone may consider using flaxseed, soybean or canola oil with cooking.
- Berries like blueberries are high in flavonoids and help with stress-induced inflammation.
- Don’t eat processed foods which contain trans fats and salt/MSG.
- Sweet potatoes and other carbohydrates that are rich in nutrients can help lower cortisol levels and also provide adequate vitamin C and potassium which are important to combat stress.
- Kimichi, a vegetable food incorporating cabbage and radish is loaded with probiotics, vitamin, minerals, antioxidants.
- Eating foods high in B vitamins (B12, B6, folate, and riboflavin) also contribute to better stress control and can also help with producing mood-boosting chemicals or neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
- Individuals can cook with parsley and garlic which can help protect the body from free radicals and oxidative stress associated with many illnesses.
Parsley is rich in flavonoids and carotenoids which exhibit antioxidant properties. Garlic and avocados can help increase glutathione levels which can also play a role in the immune defense system. Incorporating ginger and turmeric in foods are great spices to add to meals. Spinach and broccoli contain antioxidants Vitamin A, C, E.
Any food rich in zinc, magnesium, selenium and Vitamin E like sunflower seeds, legumes like chickpeas (also contains B vitamins) can help with stress reduction.
Avoid caffeine which can trigger the body’s fight or flight response.
Avoid processed foods, refined flours and sugars.
Drink water if you experience cravings.
Plan your melas ahead of time to avoid giving in to last minute cravings.
Eat protein which may help reduce cravings and overeating.
Identify your stress triggers and have some healthy snacks like blueberries close by!