Emotional Eating. What pops into your head when you hear those words? Easing the pain of a bad breakup with a pint (or two) of Double Fudge Rocky Road? Or maybe it's a bag of chips while anxiously cramming for that final exam? Could it be stopping for a burger and fries following a stressful day of work? Most of us, at one time or another, have found ourselves reaching for comfort food to alleviate stress or depression. Food doesn't just provide us with nutrients - it can also be a quick mood booster when we're feeling stressed, anxious or sad.
Here's the problem with emotional eating - it's not just the excess calories - it's that the foods we usually reach for to improve our mood may, in fact, be contributing to the problem. There is a strong brain/mood/food connection - the foods we eat have a direct impact on how our brains function and, in turn, how we feel. But there is good news. There are many foods that help stabilize or lift our mood, lower stress levels, alleviate depression and prevent/or reduce mental fatigue.
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, bonus round, the positive effects of L-Theanine can be felt as soon as 30-40 minutes after intake. Bonus round two: tea also contains antioxidants.
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 if you are a sushi fan because dried seaweed, shrimp, crab and soy sauce are all good sources.
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!