When we are stressed, cravings for comfort foods are perfectly understandable. The body’s response to stress is to produce hormones that both prepare us to meet challenges and to recover. The stress hormones create cravings for food, especially for fast foods that provide quick energy sources. We often reach for comfort foods in the form of high-carb sweets.
But, there are better choices, foods that bring both comfort and provide high-quality nutrition. Grandma’s chicken soup or a meal of roast and mashed potatoes shared with loved ones are indeed comfort foods. So why do we so often reach for fast food happy meals that turn out to be un-happy meals, or grab those “empty calories” in the form of high-carb sweets? And just when we need nurturing the most, why do those kinds of “comfort meals” turn out to be not so comforting after all?
When we are under stress, cortisol levels increase, creating an immediate demand for high energy. The stress hormones in the body trigger cravings for those foods that are high energy. Modern diet trends have conditioned us to seek out comfort foods in the form of fast foods – those non-nutritional pseudo-foods which are high in saturated fats, salt, refined flour and sugar.
Cortisol raises blood sugar, which then elevates insulin levels, which then drop blood sugar. Whammy, you have huge cravings for high sugar, high energy foods – and quickly! Stress creates a mighty craving for unhealthy foods, the so called “comfort foods” that really do bring comfort – for a very little while.
Little do we realize that comfort foods may be “un-happy meals” that can lead to depression. Some research is indicating that there is a link between fast food and depression. One study found that depression is 51 percent higher in those whose diet contains large amounts of fast foods, as compared to those who don’t.
Chronic elevated cortisol stimulates the appetite, especially for those salty, high sugar, foods that are high in saturated fats, or trans fats. Sadly this will lead to weight gain for many. Chronic elevated cortisol leads to hypertension, lowered immune system, blood sugar imbalance and over time, there is a risk for diabetes, and the elevated stress levels contribute to slower wound healing and decreased bone growth. The downward spiral towards bad health is another factor that often leads to depression.
One dynamic that may contribute to poor health in general, is that when we are under stress, or feeling fatigued or have “the blues”, we may reach for convenience food or whatever is lying around instead of taking care of ourselves by preparing high quality nutritious meals. Grabbing fast food is a quick solution. When we are running low on energy, and begin to feel the consequences of poor nutrition from skipping meals, we begin to get very insistent cravings for high sugar fast foods.
Unfortunately, unhealthy foods high in sugar and saturated fats result in changes in the brain that affect mental focus, mood, and our physical condition. There is a very physical component of depression, that is greatly influenced by the food that we eat.
If we but open our eyes, there are great comfort foods out there that are not only delicious, but are real food, with real nutrition. These health powerhouses can help us through stressful times while at the same time maintaining our health instead of breaking us down. Prevention magazine’s website has a great article on thirteen foods that fight stress.
One thing I absolutely avoid is artificial sweeteners. It is very sad that people choose diet colas and diet sweets in the belief that they are making good choices for their health. In fact, it may be a better choice to stay with the sugared treats. While sugar brings its own threats to health, and many people choose artificial sweeteners as a way to reduce calories, in reality the chemicals in artificial sweeteners such as Equal and NutraSweet containing Aspartame and Splenda, a brand name for sucralose are far worse for the body.
Research from the American Academy of Neurology has found that regular consumption of sweetened beverages, especially diet drinks flavored with artificial sweeteners, is linked with a significantly higher risk for depression among older adults. Dr. Amen, author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Body, The Amen Solution, suggests eliminating artificial sweeteners for a couple of reasons.
In the book Sweet Deception, author Dr. Joseph Mercola points out that sucralose is manufactured by treating it with trityl chloride, acetic anhydride, hydrogen chlorine, thionyl chloride, and methanol in the presence of dimethylformamide, 4-methylmorpholine, toluene, methyl isobutyl ketone, acetic acid, benzyltriethlyammonium chloride, and sodium methoxide – hardly like anything found in nature.
For decades, my first and best approach to maintaining a healthy lifestyle has been to learn from the Earth. We have evolved alongside Mother Nature’s plant and animal communities, and risk much when we stray too far from the biochemistry of complex systems that have developed over millions of years. I find myself in awe of the genius of natural design, and I believe we would do well to spend less energy trying to suppress symptoms of illness, and learn more about what keeps us healthy.
I would love to hear about your ideas about what you do to maintain a healthy lifestyle. What are some of the ways that you have found to be effective in dealing with stress and anxiety?
If you have found this article to be helpful, please share your experiences in the Comments section and share it with your friends using the social media buttons below.