• Stress Eating: Why it Happens and How to Avoid It

    Do you ever find yourself reaching for the potato chips in the middle of a stressful workday? Do you drown your stress in a pint of ice cream over the weekend?  Do you rely on a hit of heavily-sweetened caffeine to get through the afternoon?

    If you said yes to any or all of these, you’re certainly not alone! Stress snacking and emotional eating can be problematic for even the most conscientious eater. Eating because of emotions rather than true hunger can cause serious problems. According to one study from Australia’s Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition, stress is directly associated with weight gain and higher rates of obesity. Luckily, understanding the mechanisms behind stress-related eating can help you control emotional snacking and keep your weight on track.

    Understanding Serotonin in the Brain

    Your emotions are largely regulated by chemicals in your brain known as neurotransmitters. One of these chemicals is called serotonin. High levels of serotonin in your brain are associated with a sense of calm and well-being. In short, serotonin is one of your natural “happy chemicals.” When stress hits, serotonin helps regulate your response. However, when you’re constantly stressed, your brain’s levels of serotonin can slump, causing you to feel blue, irritable, or emotionally unstable. If that weren't enough, drops in serotonin can also cause you to feel hungry. According to Psychology Today, high levels of serotonin in the brain act as an appetite suppressant, helping you feel satisfied even if you haven’t just eaten. Lowered levels of serotonin, on the other hand, make you feel not only irritable but also hungry.

    The problem here is that the fastest way to get your serotonin boost is to consume carbohydrates. So when you're feeling sad or stressed, you naturally crave carbohydrate-rich snacks. These carb heavy "happy meals" deliver the serotonin by way of raised insulin levels. To make things worse, over time your body grows resistant to this surge of insulin and not only requires you to ingest more food to achieve the same effects but can also lead to the development of type II diabetes and overall weight gain. Luckily, understanding the effects of serotonin in your body and planning to boost serotonin levels at the right times with healthy snacks can keep your mood in check and your diet on track.

    Foods that Boost Serotonin Levels

    Eating to boost serotonin levels is actually a healthy form of self-medication, as long as you do it right. Psychology Today notes that most of us have a natural tendency to do this - without even thinking about it. In the afternoon, between about three and five, many people experience a mood and energy slump that causes them to reach for a carbohydrate-rich snack. That snack boosts blood glucose levels and helps increase serotonin. By planning ahead to make sure that your serotonin boost is a healthy one, you’ll stay on track with your diet and curb unhealthy emotional eating.

    The best type of snack to boost serotonin is low fat or fat free, is low in sugar, and has four grams or less of proteins. Protein can actually block your body from making serotonin. Your snack should also contain 25-35 grams of carbohydrates and shouldn’t have a ton of fiber that will slow down digestion. The key is to plan ahead for this afternoon snack so that you don’t ingest too many calories. Some excellent serotonin-boosting snacks to consider include:

    • Popcorn

    • Oatmeal (lightly sweetened, if at all)

    • Vegetables with a light dip like fat-free ranch dressing

    • Whole grain crackers or bread

    • Fruit

    • Nut butter

    • Deli turkey

    • Cottage cheese

    These foods are great options to boost serotonin levels and reduce the physical and mental effects of stress immediately. However, ensuring that your body is getting the right nutrition, in general, can keep your serotonin levels higher on a daily basis. Get lots of brightly colored vegetables – at least a quart every day – along with plenty of fruit, nuts, beans, and protein. Foods that include healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids, such as nuts, nut butter, flax seed, and cold water fish can also help keep serotonin levels high.

    Why Caffeine is Not the Answer photo courtesy of phil monger

    When you hit a wall in the afternoon, reaching for stimulant like caffeine is tempting. After all, it should help you wake up and focus, right? Maybe in the short term, but stimulants like this are terrible for you in the long term.

    According to one CNN article, caffeine can actually have the reverse effect. Your body is already stressed and stimulated (maybe just not in the way you prefer) and adding a stimulant to the mix can really overdo it. In the long run, you’ll become more dehydrated, and your hormone levels will end up chronically depleted – causing even more stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. If a hot drink helps you feel better in the afternoons, consider drinking a cup of decaf green tea with your popcorn snack to safely boost your mood and ease your hunger. Warm liquids help fill your stomach faster than cold liquids like a Diet Coke.

    Can You Train Your Body to Produce Serotonin More Efficiently

    Yes, you can.  Studies show that more muscular people produce more serotonin.  Muscles actually aid the body in facilitating the availability of serotonin. Now, this doesn't mean you have to be a bodybuilder to do this. Remember, if you lose weight by way of healthy eating and exercise, you will automatically burn fat and add muscle to your body. This makes your body much more efficient on several levels. A little muscle goes a long way.

    The Bottom Line

    If you’re dealing with stress eating on a daily basis, using these tips to plan your meals can help. But in the long run, the best thing you can do is to reduce your levels of stress by finding ways to avoid and or cope with your daily challenges. Take up a hobby. Go for a walk. Talk with a friend. All of these options can help reduce the negative effects of stress on your brain and body, keeping you on-track with your healthy living goals.

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