Stress-Busting Foods…and why sometimes that cupcake is OK.
Thanks to the final weeks of my career as a master’s degree student, I’m currently experiencing some of the highest stress days /weeks I’ve felt in a long time. As I panic my way through late nights and early mornings of paper writing, project completing and seemingly endless studying I find myself reaching for food more often than usual. Sure, sometimes I’m starving – it’s 10:30pm, I’ve got at least 2 more hours ahead of me and I ate dinner 3 hours ago – that bowl of cereal is well deserved. Other times, the Easter basket filled with candy, and excessive licks from the bowl of cookie dough I just made (instead of studying), may not be necessary for nourishment…but for sanity, absolutely.
While I’m not concerned about this current eating habit I’ve gotten myself into, because I know it’s not permanent, it has gotten me thinking about the American weight struggle. While yes, calories in > calories out = weight gain, the reason for excessive calorie intake is sometimes a bigger beast than we can bear.
Far beyond our basic hunger cues, on any given day, there are a multitude of factors that contribute to how much and what type of food we eat. Even when we know the difference between the foods we should be reaching for and what we actually choose, time and again there are influences in our life that result in us not always choosing the smarter option.
In this game, stress is the worst offender. Stress likes to let us take part in what’s lovingly known to us as “emotional eating.” We’ve all been there. So what exactly is going on in our body that is making us eat?
When stress levels rise in our body all sorts of hormones come out to play. One of these hormones, otherwise known as “the stress hormone,” is cortisol. Contrary to popular belief, cortisol isn’t always the bad guy. Typically present in its highest levels in the morning and lowest at night, cortisol is responsible for proper glucose metabolism, immune function, regulation of blood pressure, insulin release for blood sugar maintenance, and more. While this hormone plays a key role in our “fight or flight” response, when quick bursts of energy are needed for ‘survival,’ having it constantly elevated is not so good for our body.
Higher, prolonged levels of cortisol induced by chronic stress have been shown to have many negative effects on our body, including increased blood pressure, lowered immune functions, and that constant craving for sweet and salty junk foods!
So what’s the take home message from all this sciency stuff I just made you
read skim through?
Without even always realizing it, our society puts us through lots of stress. On any given day one of us has slept through our alarm clock, is pushing it to make a major deadline at work, are stuck in a major traffic jam, you get my gist…
And while all these seemingly minor day to day events are occuring, our cortisol is staying elevated, seemingly to “help us survive,” when in actuality it’s doing more harm to our body than good.
We must work to stimulate the relaxation response in our bodies, prompting our brain to make seratonin – a calming chemical in the brain- to bring our cortisol levels down and return our body to homeostasis. So before you reach for the bag of Oreos out of panic tell yourself it’s ok to stop for an hour and go to that yoga class, get lost in a good book for 30 minutes, take a deep breath, and if you’re hungry reach for one of the following “stress-busting foods”
Oatmeal: You know how there’s comfort found in warm toast in the morning or a bowl of pasta for dinner? That’s because carbohydrates prompt the brain to make seratonin. The complex carbs, like oatmeal & whole wheat bread are the healthier options here but sometimes you just need that refined cookie, which is OK too. Just remember to try and reach for only 1!
Spinach: When levels of magnesium in our body dip, we often get headaches and tired, which on top of feeling stressed is a nightmare. Eat a spinach salad for lunch or sauté some swiss chard with dinner
Dark Chocolate: Dark chocolate contains flavanoids, shown to relax the cells in the body. Also in chocolate is a chemical that enhances your mood, known as phenethylamine; An explanation for how happy you get when someone drops off a mini Hershey’s Dark at your desk – and a great reason to go ahead and eat it!
Salmon: Omega -3 fatty acids have been proven to reverse stress symptoms by boosting seratonin. A handful of walnuts, some olive oil or flax seeds offer the same.