In an ideal world, we would only eat when our bodies signal a need for nourishment and we would eat the exact amount needed. And, (because we are living in "perfect land") we would never, ever eat to relieve stress or for emotional comfort.
Well, I don't live in "perfect land", and I suspect you don't either.
Most of us, at one time or another, have found ourselves reaching for food when we are feeling stressed, anxious or sad. A bad day at work - reach for the Ben and Jerry's. A fight with your partner - break out the bag of chips. And, it makes sense.
Food doesn't just provide us with nutrients. The simple act of eating something that tastes good actually does makes us feel better - at least in the short term.
Here's the problem with "comfort" food - it can not only carry excess calories, the foods we usually reach for to improve our mood may, in fact, be contributing to the problem.
But there is good news. There are multiple effective techniques, other than reaching for food, which can significantly lower stress levels and provide a mood boost. But, lasting, serious change doesn't come overnight. Even as we are exploring healthier alternatives to stress relief, there are still going to be times when we just want our immediate "fix" of comfort food. For those times, we can make choices that not only taste good but really can be mood lifters. We can redefine our idea of comfort foods from simply "what tastes good" to "what tastes good and will literally improve my mood"
COMFORT FOODS - REDEFINED
Let's start with tea - either green or black. L-Theanine is an amino acid found almost exclusively in tea. L-Theanine is a triple win because it can not only reduce anxiety and increase alertness, but it's also a mood booster. And, unlike energy drinks or sodas, tea also contains antioxidants.
Bonus round: the positive effects of L-Theanine can be felt as soon as 30-40 minutes after intake.
We've all heard the funny stories about how turkey, a source of L-tryptophan, makes us curl up and take a nap immediately after Thanksgiving dinner. Actually, there are other foods higher in tryptophan than turkey - we just don't stuff ourselves with them in a single sitting! The truth is that tryptophan, when accompanied by other nutrients such a B6 and niacin, affects our brain's serotonin level and serves as a natural relaxation aid and anti-depressant. Research has also shown that tryptophan depletion is associated with depression and anxiety. Salmon, halibut, tofu, spinach and egg whites make the list as foods high in tryptophan.
Bonus round to sushi because dried seaweed, shrimp, crab and soy sauce are all good sources of tryptophan
Omega 3 fatty acids rank high in the brain/mood/food connection. Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to have a powerful influence on the brain and play a major role in reducing depression. Fish sources of Omega 3 include salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna, and herring. Non-fish sources include flax (oil, seeds, ground), spinach, navy and kidney beans, and wild rice.
But, it's not enough to include Omega 3 rich food - to really get the mood enhancing and other health benefits, we have to reduce our intake of Omega 6 as well. Omega 6 is a fatty acid found in high concentrations in most of the "comfort foods" traditionally associated with emotional eating. Almost all commercially fried foods, processed foods such as snacks and desserts, and fast foods are high in Omega 6. This is a double whammy because Omega 6 actually competes in our body with Omega 3 fatty acids.
Bonus round goes to wild rice which is actually a grass, not a grain and is also a good source of zinc
Zinc is the nutrient most of us don't think about in relation to mood - if we think about it at all. Zinc helps regulate our stress response and a zinc deficiency can cause symptoms of depression and increase feelings of anxiety. A zinc deficiency can also affect our ability to concentrate, learn and retain information - not surprising since the highest concentration of zinc is in our brain.
Although a zinc deficiency can be caused by chronic stress, even if you're not chronically stressed, eating a lot of processed foods or just too many grains in your diet can result in a deficiency.
Because our bodies don't store zinc, and we rapidly excrete it during periods of chronic stress and anxiety; it's a nutrient we need to consume in small amounts on a daily basis.
For nonvegetarians, oysters, lean beef short ribs, lamb, and chicken are excellent sources. For vegetarians, wheat germ, spinach, endive, almonds, cashews, cocoa/cacao, kidney beans and mushrooms are picks of the day to get your zinc.
Bonus round goes to spinach because it's also rich in folate
Multiple studies have found that eating more fruits and vegetables can lead to a lower risk of developing depression. One of the reasons behind this is folate (B-9). Folate plays a large role in the brain/mood/food connection. Not only can a regular intake of folate be protective against symptoms of mild to moderate depression, being deficient in folate can actually contribute to feelings of depression.
Folate is found in beans, citrus fruits, and dark green vegetables like spinach, positively affects the neurotransmitters that impact mood. Additional folate-rich foods are chickpeas, pinto beans, avocado, broccoli, and asparagus.
Bonus round to avocado because - well, guacamole!
You can't talk about the brain/mood/food connection without talking about free radicals. Not only does chronic stress contribute to overproduction of free radicals, but there is there is a strong correlation between free radicals and depression. Fruits and vegetables are powerful sources of antioxidants which neutralize free radicals.
Flavonoids and carotenoids are some of the antioxidant compounds found in fruits and vegetables. They play a role in the brain/mood/food connection by improving memory, stabilizing mood and alleviating symptoms of depression. Rich sources of these antioxidants include tomatoes, spinach, eggplant, broccoli, and onions. And berries, especially blueberries, are just little flavonoid powerhouses.
Bonus round: dark chocolate contains a flavonoid which can help reduce stress hormones.
Emotional eating doesn't have to be an unhealthy diet disaster. We just need to redefine our idea of "comfort food". Hmmm, a cold glass of ice tea, fresh sushi and a piece of dark chocolate - sounds like comfort food to me!
For a quick read of practical and proven non-food related ways to reduce stress and anxiety, check out Simple, Practical and Highly Effective Tips to Reduce Anxiety