When you’re under stress, the last thing you want to worry about is the food you’re eating. If you’re like most people, what you want is comfort food, the kind Mom used to make.
You’re more likely to grab a hunk of warm apple pie, suck down creamy mac and cheese, and gorge on greasy fried chicken. We crave these foods based on sensory memories of better times, according to MRI studies at Monell Chemical Senses Center.
Unfortunately, the food that feels good going down may lead to more stress down the road. Change the food, and you may actually lower stress levels.
Why junk food causes stress
When you look at the chemical reactions going on in the body during a sudden or chronic stress response, you can see the connection between diet and stress. The fight or flight hormone adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol kick in during high levels of anxiety and stress.
“The chronic release of cortisol is a sure fire way to invite weight gain and other health problems, and it also stimulates you to eat more,” says Amy Hendel R-PA, author of Fat Families, Thin Families.
When stress triggers these chemical changes and then you eat the wrong food—salt, sugar, saturated fat—you alter your metabolism (how your body processes food), throw your electrolytes out of balance, and increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
To get your body back in balance, you want to eat foods that reduce the impact of those chemicals rather than worsen their effect, says Hendel.
Why Obsessing leads to stress
Obsessing about your diet, however, can create a feeling of living from one meal to the next. Focusing too much on what you eat can actually cause more stress because it becomes like an addiction, says G. Frank Lawlis, PhD, author of The Stress Answer.
Rather than binging on the wrong foods or obsessing over the right foods, plan for stressful situation by always having healthful food that you enjoy in your house.
Savvy Tips for Stress-Free Eating
1. Stock the fridge with calming foods. Stress-less options include bananas cantaloupe, watermelon, and turkey, all foods that provide tryptophan to promote muscle relaxation and create serotonin for brain health, says Lawlis.
Strawberries are thought to increase pain-fighting endorphins. And the nutrients in almonds strengthen the immune system, which helps the body fight against the ravages of stress, he ads.
The act of chewing the crunchy nut may relieve stress and anxiety. For the same reason chewing gum also lowers stress. “When you chew, you flood the temporal lobe in the front of your brain with chemicals that help you de-stress,” says Lawlis. “You’re actually reducing anxiety as your chew.”
2. Get your sweet fix from fruits and berries. The body responds to sugar in a drastically different way than to natural sugar, the kind you get from orange juice, says Lawlis, who calls sugar “the white poison.”
If you eat processed sugar, especially in the morning, you never get that chemical balance back. “You’re dealing with stress all day with a dulled brain,” says Lawlis. Try an orange instead. Studies suggest foods high in vitamin C lower stress hormones and strengthen your immune system.
3. Skip the salt. Too much stress combined with too much salt creates a double whammy for people who are prone to high blood pressure. Experiment with herbs, spices, and salt substitutes and avoid foods that don’t taste good without piling on tons of salt. Instead of potato chips, munch on crisp apple slices.
“The crunchiness of the apple, and the time it takes to eat it, will calm you down, says Hendel. “Apples also contain vitamins and antioxidants that combat the bad reactions in your body from stress and poor food choices.”
4. Pick your proteins. High quality proteins are essential for restoring the body during stressful periods. As a protein source, eggs are brilliant because you can do so much with them, says Hendel. She suggests making an omelet stuffed with leftover vegetables and then rolling it into a whole-grain tortilla wrap.
You’ll have a bulky, nourishing, nutritious wrap to satisfy your hunger and soothe your stress. And don’t overlook the humble bean as a versatile nutrient-dense protein source.
5. Modify your favorites. If you really must have that cheeseburger, make it on a whole-grain bun or open-faced on one piece of bread. Consider using chopped lean chicken or turkey instead of high-fat ground beef. And choose a lighter cheese.
You can eat a stress-busting bean burrito or a steeping bowl of chili or bean soup. Just make sure it contains lots of veggies, and season it with herbs and spices such as cumin and curry rather than salt.