Updated October 31, 2019
If you’ve been feeling more stressed out lately, you’re not alone. According to a survey done by the American Psychological Association released in March 2016, average stress levels in the U.S. rose from 4.9 in 2014 to 5.1 in 2015 on a 10-point stress scale. There’s also been an increase in the number of adults who experience “extreme stress,” with 24 percent reporting they were highly stressed last year compared with 18 percent the year before.
Did you know that financial setbacks like unemployment can contribute to increased stress levels? Loss of an affordable health insurance plan and retirement savings can take a toll, but there are temporary health insurance solutions that can help alleviate the stress of not having health care protection when you need it the most. If you have become unemployed, compare your options between short term medical insurance plans and COBRA insurance.
One of the ways we tend to deal with stress is to eat foods that comfort and relax us. If our stress were more episodic and less chronic, this may not be as detrimental of a problem as it is, but with long-lasting stress comes long-lasting attempts to alleviate it. Here are some of the ways we use food to help us control our stress levels.
When it comes to stress eating, our bodies are hardwired to work against us. “When they’re stressed, people go naturally to the wrong foods because they increase levels of [the stress hormone] cortisol,” explained Heather Bauer, R.D., founder of Bestowed.com. “People tend to crave foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt because those directly increase our cortisol levels.”
The human body has not yet adapted to its current environment of prolonged chronic stress, readily available refrigeration and fast food on every corner. Naturally, our bodies crave fat, sugar and salt as a way to prolong life, unaware that the vast majority of us do not live under the constant threat of starvation. And when we are stressed, that craving intensifies.
Stress triggers our bodies to produce more cortisol. Cortisol has a beneficial function in the body, but too much cortisol brought on by chronic stress can cause many problems. High levels of cortisol can create cravings for fatty, salty and sweet foods. In previous centuries, this enabled people to eat foods that would sustain them through food scarcity; however, in modern times and industrialized nations, when food is rarely scarce, this previously adaptive mechanism causes excess weight gain.
Food as Reward
Many of us have comforting childhood memories that revolve around food. Whether your parents used to reward you with sweets, fix your boo-boos with an ice cream cone, or make your favorite meal (or take you out to one) to celebrate your successes, you’d probably be in the vast minority if you didn’t develop some emotionally based attachments to food while growing up.
When in times of stress, few things can be as powerfully comforting or rewarding as your favorite foods. Because many people don’t develop more effective coping strategies, this type of emotional eating is very common: People eat to celebrate, eat to feel better, eat to deal with the stress of being overweight.
Eating when we are not hungry can be caused by the same thing that causes nail biting or teeth grinding. Many people, out of nervousness or boredom, just munch on chips or drink soda to give their mouths something to do without deliberately deciding on a meal.
People who are uncomfortable with confrontation may deal with frustration with food rather than with open communication. If you’re an emotional eater, it’s important for you to be aware of this, keep an eye on your triggers, and develop some effective stress management techniques and coping skills, so that your body stays healthy and you choose your diet, rather than feeling out of control.
Being around our friends and family in social settings has a calming effect on our minds and bodies. When we are stressed out, we often seek out this social interaction. The fact that human social interaction and comfort food go hand in hand means potential dietary pitfalls present themselves in tempting ways. Crying on a friend’s shoulder over a bowl of ice cream, going out to a favorite bar for a plate full of fried appetizers, sharing a bowl of pretzels with the guys as you watch a game are all social forms of emotional eating. It can alleviate stress in the short term, but you may regret it later.
The Double Whammy
We’ve all got that tub of ice cream in the back of the freezer waiting to come out at the end of a bad day. “People soothe stress with foods, and those that trigger the reward centers in the brain most effectively are salty, fatty and sweet,” explains Columbia University psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD, author of The Happiness Diet and Fifty Shades of Kale. In fact, recent research from Ohio State University shows that regularly eating high-calorie and high-fat foods when we’re stressed also slows metabolism, a double whammy that can lead to an annual 11-pound weight gain.
Fortunately, there are healthy satisfying snacks that soothe stress in the brain and body. “You don’t need to shove a white carb in your mouth when the going gets tough,” Ramsey notes.
We know which foods are good for limiting and alleviating stress, and which foods only contribute more to the problem. Here are four foods and four drinks to avoid the next time you’re stressed.
The Four Foods to Avoid
Avoid: Refined sugar
People often turn to sweet treats when they have stress. Unfortunately, sugar contributes to higher levels of stress hormones. “We go naturally to the wrong foods because they increase levels of cortisol,” Bauer says. Consuming refined sugar also can cause blood sugar and insulin spikes. After that, you could have “sugar crashes,” irritability and even more cravings for foods.
Alternative: Fresh fruit
When you eat fruits, your supply of energy increases in no time; this is one of the prime benefits of fruits that we can utilize in our busy schedules. This is the reason why athletes often eat fruit during and after exercising and why diets for pregnant mothers almost always involve fruits of some kind.
Avoid: French fries and potato chips
Worse than overloading on simple carbs is stuffing yourself with trans-fat. A study at Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that a diet high in trans-fats leads to weight gain—specifically around the middle, where it’s most dangerous to your health. The high carb and fat content of french fries and potato chips may provide a quick energy fix but will only lead to a crash later on. And aside from the obvious hypertension risk of eating lots of high-sodium foods, both are also a common culprit for stress-eating—which is never good in the long run for stress. Whether you consume french fries, potato chips or corn chips, anything that’s high in salt, carbs and trans-fats would be considered a mindless munching sort of food.
Alternative: Kale chips
Homemade kale chips have just a few ingredients: olive oil, kale and maybe some salt. And eating olive oil daily has been found to make people feel more satisfied and to have an increased level of the hormone serotonin, according to a recent study. As for kale, research from the Harvard School of Public Health found that people whose blood contained high levels of carotenoids (an antioxidant) were significantly more optimistic. Kale is a great source of carotenoids, along with spinach, carrots and sweet potatoes.
Avoid: Ice cream
Ice cream is a high-fat food since it must contain greater than 10 percent milk fat to be designated ice cream, with some products having as much as 16 percent, according to the University of Guelph. Milk fat is largely cholesterol, a saturated fat. When your blood cholesterol level is too high, it can build up as plaque, a fatty deposit in your arteries that interferes with blood flow and raises your risk of heart disease and stroke. Ice cream is also high in sugar, which makes up the majority of its carbohydrate content.
Alternative: Yogurt with berries
Find the creaminess you desire in plain low-fat Greek yogurt. It’s a great source of energizing protein and calcium, which your body needs to release feel-good neurotransmitters. Add fresh berries for sweetness and a mega-dose of stress-busting antioxidants and immune system-boosting vitamin C.
Avoid: Processed foods
High in sodium, fat and artificial additives (not to mention that they add little to no nutritional value), the processed foods we turn to for a little comfort can actually increase stress levels. “The foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt are the foods that directly increase our cortisol levels,” Bauer says. “That’s what we crave when we are stressed, as a result.”
Alternative: Fresh, unprocessed foods
With a busy lifestyle, our eating habits have become packed with preservatives and processed foods that are not only devoid of essential nutrients but can also cause some harm to the body. Fresh food can boost your immune system and keep you in perfect health. Eating fruit and vegetables may promote emotional well-being among healthy young adults. Research suggests that good mood may lead to a greater preference for healthy foods overindulgent foods.
Drinks To Steer Clear Of
Avoid: Rich Coffee Drinks
Yes, caffeine is a proven mood-booster, stimulating dopamine activity in the brain and lowering risk of depression. But sweetened coffee drinks can set you back a whole day’s calories and a week’s worth of sugar. And what’s worse, the post-drink sugar crash may send you back for, gulp, a refill. Caffeine stimulates your nervous system, which means too much can lead to a rapid heartbeat and increase in blood pressure. It can also irritate your digestive system. Additionally, excess caffeine can interfere with sleep and trigger dehydration, which can zap energy and cause headaches.
Get your caffeine fix by blending java with soy milk (the folate it contains may boost serotonin levels), unsweetened cocoa powder (cue the dopamine, as with coffee), and a ripe banana (potassium lowers blood pressure).
A few sips of wine may make you feel relaxed, but imbibing can actually exacerbate stress. Alcohol stimulates the production of the same hormones the body produces when under stress, and research shows that stress and alcohol “feed” each other. A University of Chicago study looked at 25 healthy men who performed a stressful public speaking task and then a non-stressful control task. After each activity, the subjects received fluid intravenously—either the equivalent of two alcoholic beverages or a placebo. The researchers measured effects such as anxiety and the desire for more alcohol, as well as heart rate, blood pressure and the levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) present. They found that alcohol can actually prolong feelings of tension brought on by stress, and stress can reduce the pleasant effects of alcohol and spike cravings for more. Like caffeine, alcohol is also dehydrating and can interfere with sleep.
Milk packs tryptophan—an amino acid that’s converted into the neurotransmitter serotonin. Elevated levels of serotonin improve your mood, which can keep you calm. Plus, calcium and magnesium help lower blood pressure. Warm milk can be even more calming since the temp exerts a soothing effect like hot tea. But if you only like it cold, you’ll still reap the benefits.
Drinking regular soda is like eating 10 sugar cubes. Diet soda isn’t any better; new research from the Weizmann Institute shows artificial sweeteners may tweak gut bacteria in the direction of obesity and diabetes. (If you need more proof that your diet soda habit isn’t doing you any favors, this will do it.) You know how it goes: The sugar spikes your levels of glucose and cortisol, plus the lactose can cause GI distress if you’re sensitive. Not only are sugary foods typically stripped of nutrients, but the fluctuations they cause in blood sugar and insulin levels can lead to irritability and poor concentration. If you’ve ever overindulged in holiday goodies, you’ve probably experienced the not-so-merry moods swings associated with a brief sugar high followed by a crash.
Alternative: Green tea
A 2011 study linked L-theanine, the amino acid in green tea, with feeling cooler under pressure. It is loaded with antioxidants and nutrients that have powerful effects on the body. This includes improved brain function, fat loss, a lower risk of cancer and many other incredible benefits. The green stuff also comes with a jolt of caffeine, so you’ll enjoy a focused calm.
Avoid: Energy Drinks
Full of caffeine and sugar, energy drinks and caffeinated colas are some of the worst foods for stress, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., author of The Flexitarian Diet. “That dynamic duo of trouble … the combination of both the caffeine jitters and the sugar crash, that can be taxing on your body, so it does add stress,” she says. Guzzling energy drinks can also make stress worse because of the way caffeine affects sleep. An energy drink can contain as much caffeine as three cups of coffee, which can lead to insomnia, an aggravator of stress.
“Thirst is often an underlying cause of fatigue,” says Rachel Begun, M.S., R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “To get that workout in, drink water and herbal tea throughout the day to stay hydrated. Eating four cups of water-rich produce, such as watermelon, cucumber and lettuce, daily can help you stay hydrated too.”
Reduce Your Stress with the Right Food and Drink–and Short Term Health Insurance
The conclusion is that what you eat and drink can have a powerful effect on your stress levels. Concentrate on consumption that does not make your stress levels worse, and you may actually begin to relax more.
You can relax more, also, if you have short term health insurance to provide you and your family financial protection and peace of mind.