Americans love food. We love the variety, the availability, and, of course, the taste. Television stations have responded in kind with dozens of programs dedicated to cooking, restaurants and eating.
Whether you’re a fan of Paula Deen, Bobby Flay, "Cupcake Wars," "Hell's Kitchen," or any other food-related entertainment, a newfound infatuation with food can be a positive thing—as long as you eat the right way.
For many, food gives comfort. Unfortunately, when Americans rely on eating to cope with stress, we tend to gravitate toward foods high in fat or sugar1. Physiologically, this makes sense. When we experience a lot of stress, our body releases cortisol and other hormones, which trigger our primal fight or flight response. Our body, thinking that it has just expended a great deal of energy to fight or flee, then craves fat and sugar to recover.
The problem is that our stressors today are far different from the dangers faced by our ancestors thousands of years ago. Rather than being threatened by large predators, we dread an impending work deadline or are overwhelmed by too many errands. Maybe our ancestors didn’t have it so bad after all!
When we gorge on fat and sugar to cope with stress, we are likely to feel upset about eating poorly. This, in turn, causes more stress, which is followed by (you guessed it!) more junk food.
Here’s the good news: we can and should use food to help us feel happy. The key is selecting foods that are useful for boosting our mood; junk food offers just momentary comfort and eventually contributes to the very problem we’re trying to fix! Let’s start with three food choices that make a big impact on well-being2, 3.
Choice #1: Complex Carbohydrates
WHY EAT THEM?: They contain serotonin, an important neurotransmitter that influences mood, sleep and other important bodily functions.
TRY: Whole grains like brown rice, oats, quinoa and wheat bread.
AVOID: White rice and white flour-based versions of foods like bread and pasta. They spike your blood sugar and have very little nutritional value.
Choice #2: Foods High in Calcium and Magnesium
WHY EAT THEM?: They help to calm the nervous system. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to irritability and mental confusion.
TRY: Leafy green vegetables, soybeans, nuts, salmon, broccoli and unsweetened yogurt.
AVOID: Iceberg lettuce, highly salted or candied nuts and sweetened yogurt. These foods either lack nutrients or contain too much sugar and salt.
Choice #3: Chocolate
WHY EAT IT?: You probably don’t need any convincing on this one. Dark chocolate contains a neurotransmitter called anandamide, which is related to feelings of relaxation and reduced anxiety.
TRY: Dark, semisweet chocolate with the highest cocoa content that you can enjoy.
AVOID: Chocolates with hydrogenated fats or refined flour. These have a much higher caloric content and few of the nutritional benefits.
1. Parylak, S. L., Koob, G. F., & Zorrilla, E. P. (2011). The dark side of food addiction. Physiology & Behavior, 104, 149-156. 2. Balch, J. F., & Stengler, M. (2004). Prescription for Natural Cures. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. 3. Murray, M., Pizzorno, J., & Pizzorno, L. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: Atria Books.
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