You’ve had a hectic day at work. It feels like you haven’t even have a chance to breathe, let alone eat lunch. Wait, did you eat lunch? The day has been so long you can’t even remember. But now, on your way home, you’re fantasizing about a huge bowl of pasta—no, scratch that—macaroni and cheese. And maybe some Ben & Jerry’s. Definitely some Ben & Jerry’s. You need carbs and sugar, and you need it now.
Sound familiar? Then you know what it feels like to stress-eat. And although your body is telling you to load up on carbs, sugar and fat, it’s not going to make you any less stressed. In fact, it might just make you feel worse.
Why Stress Makes Us Crave Crap
When we’re stressed out, we want something that will comfort us and calm us down. There’s a reason we tend to look for it in the fridge. “A biochemical change occurs in the brain when we eat certain things, like carbohydrates,” YouBeauty’s Nutrition Expert Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D., explains. Feel-good chemicals in the brain (serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine) surge in response to carbs, sugary sweets and salty snacks, she says, giving us the warm and fuzzy feeling we long for. Like drugs, these foods are habit-forming.It’s quite possible, if you’re a super healthy eater, that you won’t crave sweets in high-stress situations. But many of our eating habits, especially those that center on feeling comfortable and secure, were developed way back when we were kids, says Mary Pritchard, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Boise State University and a holistic health counselor who has done extensive research on the psychology of eating. “We tend to crave foods from childhood that we ate a lot, and those kind of turn into our comfort food.”
Your personal definition of “comfort food” depends on both the chemical and emotional responses it triggers. “When you were a child, if your mom made you mac and cheese on a day where something bad happened, you would feel better,” says Kirkpatrick. Now, as an adult, that memory forms a strong association between the blue box and busting a blue mood.
Breaking the Cycle
The problem with reaching for unhealthy foods when you’re stressed is that you’re actually depriving your body of what it really needs to fight the stress. “When we’re stressed out, that’s when we need high level nutrition to help our bodies fight back,” says Pritchard. So, while the about the worst thing you could pick out of the pantry. “Eating the chocolate cake will be effective for about an hour, and then your blood sugar is going to crash, you’ll probably get a headache, so then you’re going to be in a really bad mood. Now you’ve just compounded the problem instead of solving it.” The cycle will keep going if you keep giving your body foods that don’t contain real nutrients—you’ll still feel bad, so you’ll stress-eat even more, letting your mood and poor eating habits spiral out of control.
There are a few ways to stop yourself from reverting back to unhealthy habits when you’re feeling frazzled. Pritchard says getting proper nutrition throughout the day is key. She suggests spreading small healthy meals throughout the day, every three to four hours. “If you eat a good balance of protein and carbs and fat, that’s not processed food, five to six times a day, your body is on an even keel. It’s getting its nutrition needs met, so when the stressor happens you don’t freak out about it nearly as much,” she says. And if you’re eating enough already, then hunger isn’t going to be your immediate response.
She also suggests meal and snack planning to cut off indulgence at the pass. Buy groceries over the weekend and spend two hours on Sunday cooking for the week. That way you’ll have nutritious, mood-balancing food on-hand when you walk in the door ravenous and reeling from your hectic day.
Kirkpatrick suggests choosing foods that can give you the same feel-good brain response as your comfort foods, without the fattening, blood-sugar-crashing side effects. Lentils and salmon are both associated with lower levels of depression. Eggs, turkey and other meats contain tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin, so they can deliver a calming sensation.
Studies have shown that dark chocolate can help reduce the levels of stress hormones, though Kirkpatrick warns chocoholics not to eat the whole bar. Whey protein in dairy has also been shown to boost mood, so string cheese is another great snack to keep in your arsenal, as well as vitamin C-rich foods like kiwis and oranges. Pritchard suggests hummus and fresh vegetables, which provides a solid dose of protein, a little fat, good carbs and antioxidants to help dampen the body’s stress response. Another trick: Sip on black tea when you start craving junk. Some studies show it can help reduce stress, plus, by the time you finish a whole mug, your craving will probably be less intense.
You’re not going to make stress disappear, but you can fuel your body with what it needs to overcome it.