Chances are that when you’re feeling stressed, you reach for some of your favorite comfort foods.
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A cup of cocoa, a bowl of mac and cheese, a slice of pizza – they may be bad for you, but they can take you to a place of Zen-like bliss, right? Unfortunately, the opposite might be true.
Some of your favorite foods may actually be making you more stressed, not less. These guilty-pleasure treats may be bad for your brain chemistry as well as your waistline, ramping up the very tension they’re supposed to alleviate. The good news is that, as with so many things, you can still enjoy these foods as long as you eat them in the right way.
This one may come as a surprise. Not only do chocoholics everywhere flock to it as a stress reliever, but there have been studies linking dark chocolate to higher stress levels, not lower ones. How could eating chocolate possibly make you more stressed? The answer is twofold: you’re probably eating the wrong kind of chocolate, and you may well be eating too much of it.
All chocolate contains at least some healthy, antioxidant flavonols that lower your blood pressure, fight cell-destroying free radicals, and generally improve your health. However, most milk chocolates, and even dark chocolates that have gone through a taste-improving process called Dutch processing, have far fewer flavonols than unprocessed cacao.
This means that instead of having a stress-relieving antioxidant snack, you’re eating a chunk of sugar and caffeine – two substances that wreak havoc on your brain’s ability to process stress. When you eat something high in sugar, like chocolate, it causes your blood sugar and insulin levels to fluctuate wildly. The sugar high can make you shaky and anxious rather than elated, and the resulting crash can mimic depression.Worse still, the sugar in chocolate can lead to symptoms identical to addiction, causing you to become even more anxious and depressed than you were before your chocolate attack, as withdrawal sets in.
The caffeine in chocolate can stress you out as well. High caffeine intake is linked to higher levels of anxiety, as the stimulant effects of caffeine make your heart race and your hands jitter. One 2010 study has even found that higher levels of chocolate consumption are linked to higher levels of depression, although it isn’t clear whether people become depressed after eating more chocolate or eat more chocolate because they’re depressed.
So what’s a chocoholic to do? Eat very dark chocolate in moderation. The University of Michigan recommends eating chocolate with a cacao level of at least 60%, containing cocoa butter rather than palm or coconut oil, and free of hydrogenated fats. If that sounds like too much effort, try adding plain cocoa powder that isn’t Dutch-processed to your coffee, milk, or oatmeal for a daily chocolate fix.
Cheesy foods may taste homey and comforting, but they can also stress you out. Chocolate and sugar aren’t the only addictive substances that we turn to in times of stress. Cow’s milk contains a protein called casein that actually releases opiates into your bloodstream – opiates that are almost indistinguishable from morphine and even have painkilling properties. This certainly explains why eating cheese has such a calming effect, but it also means that the inevitable withdrawal symptoms are like morphine in miniature.
It’s also entirely possible to have a mild case of milk or lactose intolerance without knowing it. If your body has difficulty processing milk products, you may find yourself feeling bloated, nauseated, or crampy after eating those cheesy comfort foods. Lactose intolerance comes in varying degrees of severity, so you may never mentally link it to that vague feeling of unease you get after bingeing on mac and cheese.
If you find that you feel more anxious after bingeing on cheese, try going cold turkey for three weeks and seeing how you feel. If you find you simply can’t give up on cheese, try feta or other goat cheeses. Although goat cheese still has lactose, its form of casein isn’t as dangerous as the one in cow’s milk.
3. Saturated And Trans Fat
Fat’s reputation as a dietary monster is actually undeserved; most foodies know by now that monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids are actually good for you in moderation, lowering blood pressure and contributing HDL, or “good” cholesterol (cholesterol that actually breaks apart “bad” cholesterol and carries it to the liver). The problem is that the foods highest in these fats, like seafood, olives, and avocados, aren’t the fatty foods we tend to eat when we’re stressed. Instead, we turn to pastries, fries, potato chips, hamburgers, and our old enemy, cheese – all foods high in saturated fat or, worse, trans fat.
Saturated fats, found in meat, cheese, butter, and other animal products, raise the level of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol in your blood. This bad cholesterol is the type that forms plaque-like deposits in your veins and arteries, clogging them and dramatically increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke. Trans fat, formed by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, is even worse; in fact, the Mayo Clinic calls it the worst type of fat you can eat. Not only does it raise bad cholesterol, but it decreases your levels of good cholesterol, effectively making it twice as dangerous for your health as saturated fat. Because shortening often contains trans fats, it lurks in your favorite baked goods and fried foods (ibid).
What does this have to do with stress? The trouble with fat isn’t that it causes stress; it’s that stress actually causes you to seek it out. When people are injected with the stress hormone cortisol, they start craving fat. Worse, the high levels of cortisol make your body store the fat around your abdomen, the especially unhealthy “apple-shaped, not pear-shaped” fat you may have heard of (ibid). Fat doesn’t make your stress worse, but stress does make the fat worse, and really, once that fat starts to accumulate on your belly, aren’t you going to feel more stressed every time you step on the scale?
Just like with chocolate, the trick here is to meet your stress-induced fat cravings with the right sort of fat in moderation. Instead of eating a donut, try eating a handful of pecans or a slice of bread generously smeared with peanut butter. Nuts are high in healthy fats, and they have more of a comfort-food flavor than tucking into a salmon fillet. You might also try guacamole, vegetables lightly fried in canola or olive oil, or a scrambled egg – all foods that will satisfy that fat craving with poly or monounsaturated fats.
Remember, you can satisfy your stress-induced cravings without indulging in behaviors that put your health at risk while doing nothing to relieve your anxiety. By making healthy choices, you can enjoy chocolate, cheese, and fatty foods with a clean conscience – and a stress-free mind.