Managing Stress & Comfort Eating
by Lisa Powell, MS, RDN
Director of Nutrition, Canyon Ranch Tucson
On a recent stock-up trip to the grocery store, there was a fabulous supply of fresh produce – a nutritionists’ dream! However, when I rounded the corner to the snack foods section, the scene was decidedly different – the aisles were almost bare of cookies, crackers, chips and other comfort foods. A sign of our times, of course.
Americans had been buying more produce than ever, but we tend to revert to old habits in times of stress. It’s no wonder, as we learned to seek comfort through food starting at birth, when our mothers comforted our cries with milk. To this day, comfort foods bring to mind good times with family and friends, reminding us of childhood, family meals and favorite occasions. In days of insecurity, we instinctively reach for the same foods, hoping to find a culinary security blanket.
It’s perfectly okay to treat yourself to a “comfort fix” from time to time, but it can quickly get out of hand. Highly palatable foods stimulate the release of pleasure chemicals from the brain, including dopamine, serotonin and endorphins (opiates). When the “high” is over, we want more. These chemicals create a “pleasure trap” that makes it difficult to stop eating or craving the food. It overrides the feedback loop in the brain that tells us to stop eating. These pleasure chemicals also override the brain’s executive function, so we continue to eat the food even as we think, “I know I shouldn’t be doing this.” In addition, the hormone cortisol is released during times of stress and increases cravings for foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat.
Comfort foods vary based on personal preference, but often include:
- Refined carbohydrates such as bread, baked goods and pasta
- Salty, crunchy foods such as chips, pretzels, popcorn and nuts
- Creamy foods, such as ice cream, peanut butter and soft cheese
Strategies to Manage Comfort Eating
- Maintain a regular pattern of eating, even if your schedule has changed. Eat your first meal of the day when you feel hungry and try eating every 3-4 hours to manage blood sugar, stabilize energy and appetite and avoid cravings.
- Don’t skip meals! Under-eating during the day can result in low blood sugar and an imbalance in hunger and satiety chemicals that control the appetite center of the brain. For many people, under-eating carbohydrates throughout the day causes cravings for refined carbs and sugars – our typical comfort foods, later in the day.
- Balance meals and snacks with protein, carbohydrate and fat from healthy sources. Protein and fat slow the absorption of carbs, which helps manage blood sugar and decreases appetite.
- Eat real food. Highly processed food is designed to spark the pleasure-seeking response in the brain. Choose foods that satisfy, but don’t stimulate you to want more.
- When cravings strike, rather than reaching for the cookies, candy or chips, take a deep breath and ask yourself whether you really need this now? Sometimes, just this brief pause will allow you to evaluate what to eat and when.
- Avoid MSG, “natural flavorings” and sugar substitutes, which may alter brain chemistry and increase food cravings.
- Change your food environment. Remove any foods from your home or work environment that are difficult for you to avoid. Store snack foods out of sight.
- Have healthy snacks available to curb your appetite. Keep prepped fresh vegetables and sturdy fruits in the fridge – we tend to eat what’s easiest.
- Eat mindfully to increase pleasure and develop appetite awareness. Start every meal with a ritual, such as a breath, grace or affirmation to focus your attention. Follow the Zen proverb: When walking – walk; when eating – eat. Satiety and satisfaction are about more that calorie or even volume; they’re a function of the eating experience. Slow down and enjoy your food!
- Attend to your sleep. Inadequate or poor-quality sleep increases the stress hormone cortisol, leading to changes in brain chemistry that can stimulate appetite and increase desire for comfort foods.
- Try a “recipe re-do” of your favorite comfort foods: Lighten up a classic lasagna by using less cheese and adding vegetables to the sauce, or sub zucchini slices for the pasta; try mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes, or bake a fruit crisp for a warm slice of comfort.
- Enjoy a “micro-indulgence, such as a cup of your favorite tea with a drop of honey for a touch of sweetness, a wonderful piece of dark chocolate or an occasional mini-dessert.
- If you can’t resist your favorite rich comfort foods, such as mac and cheese, serve them as a side dish with plenty of vegetables to fill you up. Enjoying a moderate portion of your go-to comfort food can be satisfying and support your intention of eating healthfully the rest of the day.
- Don’t indulge in food guilt if you do splurge – comfort food happens. Resolve to eat well the rest of the day and move on.
- Develop non-food comfort strategies: take a walk in nature, call a friend, meditate, develop a yoga, tai chi or chi gong practice, or take up a hobby. Jigsaw puzzle, anyone?