How many times have you felt guilty about craving and then caving in to eating a late-night bowl of ice cream or packet of crisps after a terrible day at work? How often have you found yourself feeling worse than before once the food coma wears off, and you’re left guiltily surveying the astonishingly empty supersized carton or packet?
“Finding comfort in food in times of extreme duress is nothing new. Food alters our brain chemistry and hormonal profiles in so many ways that it’s understandable we turn to it as a crutch when things go awry,” says Juliot Vinolia Rajarathinam, head clinical dietitian at Medeor 24x7 Hospital in Dubai. “It’s also a form of control for many, in times when one might feel particularly helpless.”
Pandemic linked to overeating
Enter, stage right, 2020. Even those who had a more or less reasonable relationship with food struggled more than ever last year.
A recent global study of 8,000 people across 50 countries by researchers from Louisiana found that 27 per cent people had gained weight last year, as more turned to junk food to deal with pandemic-related stress. Several smaller studies corroborate these findings. People around the world looked for solace from Covid-dread in the packaged and fast-food aisles.
What is stress eating?
Ironically, stress shuts down the body’s appetite at first as the adrenal glands kick into action, triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response. But a prolonged period of stress has the opposite effect.
The adrenal glands now shift gears and produce cortisol, which makes you want to start eating and keep eating calorie-rich food, so the body has enough fuel to fight its way out of the threat. This would have been an excellent mechanism if we lived in an era where stress-inducing events were more physical than mental or emotional. But that’s rarely the case in the modern world.
Technically, this should be a short-lived affair. Once the stressful situation goes away, your body should go back to its regular patterns of eating. But if it doesn’t, and stress becomes a constant, the cortisol levels never fall, and the body’s stress response becomes its “normal”.
Treat food as fuel, and nothing more
Celebrity nutritionist and author of Eat. Delete., Pooja Makhija believes that the pandemic should be a wake-up call for us to fix our emotional responses and relationships with food. "If nothing else, 2020 has taught us that nothing in the world matters more than health. So many comorbidities and multimorbidities that make a person extra-vulnerable to dangerous infections like Covid are directly linked to health issues caused by poor eating habits in many cases," she says. "And it all ties back to the fact that we think of food as either a friend or enemy. It's neither. It's simply fuel to help the body perform better. The sooner we learn this, the better it is for all of us."
Even though Makhija’s advice makes perfect sense, it’s difficult to remember that when you’re panic-reading about the explosion of new strains of the virus. When that dreaded hour arrives, and you find yourself twitching for a quick fix to your negative feelings, consider reaching for these feel-good foods instead.
Foods that make us feel good
Sweet potatoes: If your body craves carbs as a response to stress, pick sweet potatoes, which are also dense with nutrients, particularly vitamin C and potassium, which help with lowering your body's cortisol levels. The mild sugar fix is an added bonus.
Eggs: These are jammed with antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, amino acids and more, making them a great dietary inclusion irrespective of stress-eating. One egg also contains about 140mg or roughly 30 per cent of the body's daily requirement of choline, a nutrient necessary for brain health, smooth functioning of the nervous system and mood regulation by lowering stress.
Citrus fruits: Increasing your intake of vitamin C can significantly lower stress levels and even prevent bouts of anxiety. If you regularly feel yourself getting overwhelmed or anxious, make friends with oranges and berries.
Yoghurt and other probiotics: Your gut health has a direct impact on your mood. A healthy gut helps combat depression and anxiety by producing bacteria that boost the production of serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid, both of which help keep you in a good mood.
Cheese: Calcium-rich foods not only promote good bone health, but reduce stress and prevent depression as well. Dairy products such as cheese, milk and yoghurt that are packed with calcium and vitamin D relax the muscles, have a soporific effect, and help stabilise agitated moods.
Whole grain anything: Most of us crave carbs while feeling low, as they can temporarily help increase the production of serotonin. The downside is that most of us reach for simple carbs in the form of cookies, pastas and breads, which cause a quick but very unhealthy spike-and-crash in blood glucose levels. Choose complex, high-fibre, and slow-release carbs in the form of brown rice, whole wheat breads, rye rotis and buckwheat salad instead.
Nuts: Nuts contain healthy fatty acids and B vitamins, both of which help reduce stress. Most nuts, especially pistachios, are also rich in magnesium, which has been linked to improved anxiety management.
Garlic: Enjoy your garlic breath for once. Garlic boosts the production of glutathione, an antioxidant that is critical in protecting the body's cells against all forms of stress.
Dark chocolate: While just the thoughts of a rich piece of chocolate melting slowly and deliciously in the mouth is enough to brighten up the mood, dark chocolate contains a host of antioxidants that lower stress hormones and release serotonin. So a small piece without added or refined sugar keeps you healthy and happy.
Eating habits to manage stress
Rajarathinam shares a few dietary dos and don’ts that can help alleviate stress and improve moods.
- The temperature of the food we eat can have an immediate impact on how we feel. Warm foods such as soups, porridges, hot chocolate, herbal teas help relax and offer a soothing effect. Cold foods such as milkshakes, ice creams, or popsicles help cool down irritation and agitation.
- If you lead a high-stress life, ensure you're getting plenty of good-quality proteins from lean meats such as chicken, fish, eggs, lentils, and nuts since they contain tryptophan, which is the building block of serotonin (mood stabiliser), dopamine (which regulates how we experience pleasure) and oxytocin (which lowers stress and anxiety).
- People who have palpitations and anxiety should include potassium-rich foods such as bananas, avocados, and green leafy vegetables to help manage high blood pressure.
- Antioxidant vitamins - A, C, and E – play a major role in the formation of happiness-promoting chemicals. A major cause of low energy and lack of motivation is a poor response transmission between the nervous system and the brain. This results in the brain not being able to properly identify signals for reward and pleasure, making us feel low and stressed. Vitamin deficiency, especially B-complex vitamins, could be the cause of this kind of poor transmission, so including a good multivitamin supplement can improve energy and mood.
- A simple hack for dealing with hyper emotions and agitation is eating foods that require a great amount of chewing and mastication, such as salads, high-fibre foods, and sugar-free gums. This also increases blood circulation to the brain and improves mental productivity.