How To Stop Stress Eating Unhealthy Foods

If you cope with the pressures of COVID-19 and the news cycle by reaching for junk food, here's how to create healthier habits.

From COVID-19 to a stressful news cycle, there’s no shortage of things stressing us out. And unfortunately, when the going gets tough, the tough get hungry. Tension triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol, which can signal hunger cravings and send us on a search for food (especially the junk variety) to soothe our uneasy souls.

Using food as a coping mechanism for stressful situations ― think emotional eating ― can cause more harm than good. But on the other hand, food doesn’t have to be the enemy. In fact, when you make mindful choices, food can be a useful tool for taking the edge off. It all boils down to selectivity.

Choosing wisely between what will help alleviate overall stress in the long run versus the instant gratification given by unhealthy fixes is how the war on stress can be fought (and won) with food.

Food and stress are connected and should be managed concurrently

The brain and the gut literally feed off each other, so the idea that what we eat triggers and affects our emotions is by no means far-fetched.

“The gut is our second brain,” explains Nikki Ostrower, an integrative nutritionist and founder of NAO Wellness. “Some of the brain’s neurotransmitters, aka happy chemicals, are manufactured in the gut ― 90% of serotonin, for example [a neurotransmitter associated with mood, sleep, appetite and gastrointestinal activity] is produced in the gut, which means there’s a direct correlation between mental health, well-being, digestion and food cravings.”

Feeding on empty calories can cause unhealthy spikes in insulin and lead to a buildup of unhealthy cholesterol in your organs, which puts stress on the body and brain.
Kwangmoozaa via Getty Images
Feeding on empty calories can cause unhealthy spikes in insulin and lead to a buildup of unhealthy cholesterol in your organs, which puts stress on the body and brain.

What drives people in the direction of comfort food is those aforementioned cravings, plus a lack of healthy options at hand. “People turn to food when they’re stressed because it provides easy albeit temporary relief,” Ostrower said. Unfortunately, the quick and easy fixes often don’t offer any health benefits.

Comfort in the moment can be consequential in the future

Often, what we eat for contentment increases physical and mental stress. Those sluggish, tired or foggy feelings that follow an overindulgent meal are no accident, and the side effects are far from comforting.

Judith Joseph, a psychiatrist and professor at New York University, has noticed an uptick in patients “cooking more decadent foods that remind them of happier times” during the pandemic. She warns, however, that “typical comfort foods like fried and sugary dishes boost a chemical in our brain called dopamine, so initially it feels really good eating these things.” But those good feelings are short-lived, Joseph reminds us, because “these foods can cause unhealthy spikes in insulin and lead to a buildup of unhealthy cholesterol in your organs, which puts stress on the body and brain.”

“We reach for the usual comfort food suspects because they initially help us feel better, but they all cause stress in the body’s organs and ultimately end up making things worse,” Joseph said. In order to tap into food’s ability to control angst, Joseph advises choosing healthy foods “as an important component of self-care that can lead to decreased anxiety.”

What to eat when you’re stressed

The urge to stress eat makes it tough to make mindful choices, but fighting that urge can prove beneficial to keeping your emotions in check. Rheumatologist Magdalena Cadet recommends eating any foods rich in zinc (which lowers cortisol levels), magnesium (which encourages relaxation and sleep) and vitamin E (which reduces oxidative stress on the brain) to help with stress reduction. “Sunflower seeds and legumes like chickpeas are great starting points,” she suggested.

Ostrower, who documented her personal battle with pandemic-induced stress eating on social media, attests, “A diet rich in natural whole foods and absent of the packaged processed stuff, can be a strong ally in fending off stress. After one day of mindful and conscious food choices, feelings of clarity and strength slowly returned.”

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, tuna and walnuts have been known to help with combating stress since, according to Cadet, they can “reduce inflammation in the body and help prevent spikes in blood pressure.” Based on their similar stress-busting capabilities, Cadet suggests “opting for flaxseed, soybean or canola oil when cooking” and is also a fan of sweet potatoes and other nutrient-rich complex carbohydrates “for their ability to lower cortisol levels and provide adequate vitamin C and potassium, which are important stress fighters.”

Chocolate devotees have options as well, according to Ostrower, who “always suggests dark chocolate for clients craving something decadent because it’s filled with essential calming minerals like magnesium.” Citrus fruits, chamomile and turmeric are also high on Ostrower’s list because they “support healthy gut function and have mood-boosting qualities.”

Choose healthy foods with similar qualities to your favorite snacks

Switching from potato chips to an apple feels like a downgrade, right? To combat that, Joseph recommends searching for reasonable facsimiles.

“Instead of seeking the crunchy sensation from chips, try crunchy almonds; instead of sipping two glasses of wine, sip one glass of wine and one cup of chamomile tea, which has natural relaxants,” she suggests. “Instead of overdosing on coffee, replace a cup of joe with a cup of matcha, which contains antioxidants and boosts attention without the high buzz or anxiety.”

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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