Do you wolf down bars of chocolate when you feel a little stressed or perhaps go to fast food restaurants whenever you have a bit of anxiety? If so, you respond to tension with food. Anxiety and stress are part of our everyday lives and are closely related to the way we eat.
Can eating really allay anxiety? Are there such things as anti-stress foods? Nutritionist Jean-Michel Lecerf sheds some light on the subject and helps us understand our reactions and attractions and figure out how best to fight stress. Read on and learn about foods that will help you stay stress-free.
When eating keeps stress at bay
The most common reaction when dealing with stress is to eat more. This is the method adopted by about 60% of the population. Eating has a way of assuaging anxiety and dispelling problems, at least momentarily. It should be remembered that food is the first emotional connection between a child and its mother: while suckling her breast the child discovers the pleasure associated with satisfying his or her needs, a “revelation” which may endure into adulthood.
Rewarding or consoling a child with sweets is a deeply engrained act in our modern society. So eating as a way of calming yourself is a “natural” reaction, which turns pathological when it becomes the only way of solving problems and reducing anxiety.
Does chocolate deserve its anti-stress reputation?
Chocolate tops the list of the foods most widely touted as counteracting stress. So much so, that all its ingredients have been carefully isolated to discover which, if any one of them, exhibited psychotropic properties.
Chocolate contains two notable substances, phenethylamine and tyramine, that are similar to amphetamines. When these compounds act on the body, they can be found in urine. But various experiments have proved that after eating 2 bars of chocolate (200g) no traces of these substances could be detected in the urine.
Another unsettling fact: sausages and tomatoes contain more phenethylamine yet neither produces the same effects as chocolate. Researchers also turned their attention to derivatives of fat acids contained in chocolate and which are thought to possess properties similar to those of cannabis. However, those substances are present in minute amounts only.
Sugar against anxiety?
High-carbohydrate foods other than chocolate are also consumed in greater quantities when stress kicks in. An appealing though criticized hypothesis has been proposed for this: carbohydrates raise the amount of insulin in the blood, thereby allowing the secretion of tryptophan, an amino acid transformed into serotonin.
Interestingly, this amino acid is partly responsible for warding off depression and anxiety. This chain reaction, however, takes place over several hours, whereas the perceived anti-stress benefits of these foods are instantaneous.
No real anti-stress foods
Taken separately, no substances or nutrients seem to explain the anti-stress effect of particular foods. Yet one thing is unarguable: the pleasure of eating something you enjoy leads to a release of endogenous opiates, which translates into a sense of wellbeing and a kind of euphoria.
Food tastes are varied though, and we all have our own anti-stress favourites. Fatty and sweet foods are favoured by most, presumably because we have an almost innate taste for sweet things and because fatty foods are savoury and filling, making them harder to resist.
A healthy lifestyle as part of your anti-stress plan
Improving diet and lifestyle can be a valuable help in minimizing stress, provided you avoid excesses. Here are a few tips:
- Take the time to eat real meals and pick food that you like;
- Treat yourself to a fine restaurant from time to time;
- Improve your lifestyle: eat a balanced diet and get a full night’s sleep;
- Avoid snacking;
- Eat carbohydrates (pasta, rice, starchy food, vegetables and fruit). Food studies point to insufficient intake of complex sugars;
- Limit your consumption of stimulating beverages such as coffee, tea and colas;
- Don’t drink your anxieties away. Alcohol is often used to quell anxiety. One or two drinks and you forget everything but your anxieties will soon resurface, only to be soothed with larger amounts of alcohol, which obviously doesn’t solve anything;
- Exercise, go out, walk or run. Physical activity has been proven to build up resistance to stress.
The key is to limit your intake of food in general when stress strikes, as it’s at these times when your urges and compensation needs often defeat all reason!
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