By Bradley Morris
Most New Year’s Resolutions are abandoned by mid-January or early February, depending on which study you check. One of the culprits is a sort of sunk-cost thinking: Once we get off track, we might as well stick with that, especially if we’re stressed and getting back on track feels like too much work. Especially as the energy of the holidays dies down, people will soon be confronted with the stresses of life and will be tempted to indulge themselves on particularly bad days.
Here’s advice for stress eating: Don’t do it.
Well, it’s a little more difficult than that. While sometimes we fail our New Year’s Resolutions because we just decided we didn’t want to exercise or decided to have that extra dessert a few too many times, sometimes we face extreme stress, and it is healthy to look for ways to reduce our stress since it can negatively affect our physical and mental health.
But stress isn’t an excuse to order an extra side of chips or to have an extra piece of cake. The benefits of stress eating unhealthy foods is short at best: You might feel good for a bit – sugar does suppress the part of your brain that controls your response to stress – but it won’t remove the stress long-term and will create health problems that will lead to more stress.
Fortunately, sugar and processed carbs aren’t the only thing that can reduce stress. Many healthy foods can actually help you fight your feelings of stress, and knowing about these foods and meal planning with them in mind in stressful times can help you reach your health goals.
The main stress hormone is cortisol, and certain foods help metabolize cortisol to reduce its stressful effects. Food high in these include protein-heavy foods such as chicken, eggs and beef but also fruits and veggies such as broccoli, spinach and bananas. The former, protein-heavy foods are really helpful because cortisol uses your protein stores for energy. These foods are going to work toward chemical reactions in your body that will help you feel better while also helping you feel satiated because of the protein or fiber they have.
If you’re in a pinch and can’t get sugar out of your mind, dark chocolate is also a high-magnesium food that usually has a little extra sugar in it; the amount of sugar is low enough that dark chocolate is the go-to sweet of a few people I know who do the keto diet. The keto diet a diet focused on being low-carb and sugar, and where many use ketone testers to ensure they’re following the low-carb and sugar part of the diet. If you aim for a dark chocolate that has a minimum of 70 percent cocoa and control your portion sizes, you could ensure you’re getting what feels like a cheat snack while staying low-sugar and enjoying some of the other health benefits of chocolate.
Inflammation is another cause of stress, and it’s a bit of a cycle: stress can cause inflammation but that inflammation can trigger fear and anxiety-related parts of your brain to cause further stress. One of the best ways you can fight inflammation is through omega-3 fatty acids. Of course, you get this from fatty fish, but there are other sources such as chia and flax seeds, olive oil and avocados. All of these foods are also nutritious in other ways, so reaching for these as snacks or meals when you’re stressed can do wonders.
Immune System Health
Another cyclical issue with stress is our immune system. Stress wreaks havoc on our immune system, which in turn helps cause more stress when we get sick. Ensuring you’re eating gut-healthy foods such as Greek yogurt and sauerkraut will encourage good digestive health, and because so much of our immune system depends on our gut, these foods will help ensure our bodies can maintain a healthy immune system and fight off illness.
It is important to note that I specified Greek yogurt. I really encourage anyone who regularly buys yogurt to check the nutrition label; many of the popular brands of yogurts are packed with sugar and will cause issues with blood sugar and weight maintenance. Even some of the cheaper Greek yogurts sometimes sneak in extra sugars. If you have the budget for it, I encourage you, if you buy yogurt regularly, to splurge on a pricier Greek yogurt that’s lower in sugars – the taste takes a little getting used to, but eventually the cheaper stuff will taste too sweet.
A Better Sweet
If you’re going to go for a sugary snack, not all sugar is created equal. As I mentioned before, if you know you’re going to go for sugar, something like dark chocolate is a much better option. Choosing sweet foods that provide other health benefits, such as sweet fruits or honey or pure maple syrup (you’ll know it’s pure if you’re paying three times as much for it and you can pour it too quickly), means you’re getting the sweet flavor you’re craving while also getting the benefits of antioxidants and other nutrition. Always remember if you go this route foods mentioned here such as dark chocolate, honey and pure maple syrup should be consumed in moderation and overeating these can wreck your diet.
There are even more foods that reduce stress such as kimchi and matcha powder, but I wanted to highlight common foods you probably have around the house that can also help you relieve stress. A lot of times, when we’re craving sweets or processed food, there’s usually a healthier alternative you probably already have access to. Sugar addiction can be very difficult to kick, so if you’re looking to have a healthier year, getting a sugar addiction is the last thing you need.
Whatever your health goals are, I wish you well in 2022 and hope your plans see you reach your goals!
For more photos and stories on healthy eating see our January 2002 print or online edition.