When stress strikes, do you find yourself unexpectedly craving something delicious and unhealthy – like a cheese-enrobed casserole, warm chocolate chip cookies or buttery mashed potatoes?
While you may be left scratching your head at your body’s response to stress, it turns out there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation. Read on to learn about why your body is hardwired to respond to stress through food, and get tips for keeping stress levels low with your diet.
The Science Behind Stress-Eating
Stress-eating isn’t just a myth. Science has shown that our bodies respond to stress by thinking we need energy – lots of energy – to fight whatever’s causing the anxious feeling. Because foods high in sugar or fat provide plenty of quick energy, that’s what we crave.
The good news is that in the short-term, these foods do help calm us down. Once we eat them, they help reduce the feelings of stress and related symptoms, as if they’re telling your body “Here’s the energy you need to deal with the problem.”
Of course, there are drawbacks to this biological response. First, it’s clear that eating high-fat, sugary foods on a regular basis is bad for your waistline as well as for your overall health. And second, the more you give in to your body’s cues to eat, the more likely you are to continue doing so in the future.
How Diet Affects your Mental Health
Finally, notice that we said stress-eating makes us feel better in the short-term. Over time, a poor diet can cause you to feel even worse – a vicious cycle. So what can you do?
What you eat on a regular basis has an enormous impact on your well-being, just as sleep and exercise do. There’s no denying that it’s fine to have a bowl of ice cream or a big spoonful of peanut butter on occasion and as part of a well-balanced diet.
But if you constantly find yourself reaching for comfort foods, you’re feeding into an endless cycle, and you’re not dealing with the problem of what makes you stressed in the first place. A better method is to reduce the stress in your life as much as possible and make small changes to your diet that will improve both your physical and mental health.
Foods That Can Improve Mental Health
Because everyone is different, you might find that you feel better after eating certain foods and worse after eating others. For example, coffee – or anything with a high level of caffeine – can increase feelings of anxiety for many people.
You’ll have to decide for yourself what works, but the list below names foods that could help you feel better and reduce stress.
- Start the day off with a healthy breakfast. Avoid sugary cereals or baked goods and focus on whole foods, like oatmeal, a hard-boiled egg or a smoothie made from fresh fruit.
- Make protein a key part of your diet. This can help you stay full and give you the energy you need to go about your day. Protein doesn’t just come from meat – try beans, fish and nuts as alternative sources.
- Keep your energy up with small snacks throughout the day. These help keep your blood sugar at an even level. Choose a healthy option, like yogurt or vegetables with hummus.
- Drink plenty of water. Dehydration can cause headaches and fatigue, so you’ll feel better with a sip of water. Try taking a water bottle with you throughout the day to help you stay quenched.
- Try chamomile or green tea. These teas have been shown to induce calming effects, and they could make a good replacement for sugary or high-caffeine drinks.
- Treat yourself with dark chocolate. Isn’t dark chocolate a comfort food, you may ask? Yes, but research shows the benefits of moderate chocolate consumption. Just be sparing, and choose a variety that’s at least 70 percent cocoa to see the greatest impact.
Besides having the potential to boost your mood over time, these foods also promote good overall health – so give them a try!
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