If you crave ice cream or French fries after a bad day at work or a fight with your spouse, you are not alone. There’s a reason your brain wants sweet and high-fat foods when you’re feeling tense – we’ll get to the science in a minute.
The problem is that chronic stress – and too many French fries – can contribute to weight gain and the health problems that accompany it, mainly heart disease and diabetes. Can you have your cake and eat it too? Yes you can, if you choose smaller portions of better-for-you comfort foods that are delicious and nutritious.
The relationship between high stress lifestyles and growing waistlines is not a coincidence. Researchers are slowly unravelling how brain chemistry drives our food choices, and why stress may lead you to eat. While the science is far from complete, the work to date is fascinating.
Hormones such as leptin, ghrelin and cortisol are part of the complex equation that regulates appetite, sleep, stress and weight. A balanced diet, paired with physical activity and adequate sleep, can help ensure proper levels of these hormones, and help keep your weight in check.
When the hormones are out of balance, and when sleep and chronic stress come into play, you may crave more sweet and fatty foods.
In times of stress, you may turn to creamy pasta casserole, or you may prefer sweet snacks like chocolate and ice cream. Regardless of your choice, comfort foods that contain sugar, fat, or both, are reported to help ease tension and produce mild feelings of happiness.
Several researchers have proposed that high-fat food (think macaroni and cheese, ice cream, French fries) may trigger the brain’s “pleasure pathway.” And sugar helps the body produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes happiness and a sense of well-being.
So, it’s a catch-22. Comfort foods really do help ease stress and make you feel good, but they also contribute to obesity. Is there a way to get the stress-busting benefits without the calories? Yes! Even small servings of sweet or fatty foods – like a half-cup of ice cream or a Halloween-sized chocolate bar – can alter a negative mood.
Eat well, feel great
The effect on your mood is the same whether your sugar comes from fruit or candy, so opt for watermelon, berries or peaches instead of gummy bears. When choosing fatty foods, try foods made with oil instead of butter, lard or shortening, and keep the portions small.
Here are some great recipes to ease stress while keeping your diet in check:
- If you like creamy: Try this Almond cardamom rice pudding. It provides sweetness from dates instead of sugar, and has a creamy mouth feel with fewer calories than ice cream. Bonus: it’s made with whole grains!
- If you like comforting casseroles: Try the meaty Shepherd’s pie with garlic mash, which includes classic, comforting potatoes made extra creamy by being mashed with beans.
- If you crave chocolate: You’ll swoon over our Mocha cherry barley muffins, which are made with canola oil instead of butter. Bonus: the portion-controlled muffins freeze well – just take one from the freezer when a comfort food craving hits.