When pressures mount we often turn to food, and it’s not usually broccoli. A 2007 USA Today study found the balm for anxiety tends to be chocolate, ice cream or chips.
University of California at San Francisco surveyed more than 600 overweight or obese women to see how stress influenced their food choices. Women with the most chronic stress in their lives (think past due mortgage, marriage problems, job dissatisfaction or no job) were more likely to be out of control with fatty food.
Women, and in particular women on diets, appear to crave fat and sugar the most. You knew that, right? Naturally produced brain chemicals called dynorphins spike in the brain when we are stressed, and probably when we diet. Unlike feel-good endorphins, dynorphins are associated with pain and depression and an increased appetite, especially for fats.
Unfortunately, the fats in fast foods and packaged snacks are industrial oils and trans fats, both of which drive up inflammation, weight gain, disease risk and even more anxiety. Vegetable oils, especially the hydrogenated variety, become part of our nerve cells and may lead to neurological trouble in time, including MS and tremors. Furthermore, high temperatures used to crisp up fatty favorites cause formation of toxic free-radicals, chemicals in oils that speed disease, pain and aging.
A low-fat diet isn’t the answer either. Studies in animals and in humans show low fat diets increase tension, hostility and anger. Fat helps us regain a feeling of calm by decreasing stress hormones. Fat and sugar can make us feel good. But you knew that. Now, what to do?
Strangely, fat itself is part of the solution. We crave greasy foods when stressed, but also when our diet lacks healthy fats. We need good fats for energy, bone health, to make cell membranes, to protect healthy nerve cells, for hormones and to assimilate vitamins and minerals. Our brain is 60% fat. We need fats for cognition, memory and good moods. It’s no wonder we crave fat when we’re anxious.
Butter, coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, avocado, grass-fed meats, unrefined lard, duck fat and egg yolks are healthy fat sources. Increasing these while cutting canola oil, safflower and sunflower oils, soy oil and other processed oils, especially partially hydrogenated oils, will benefit you on many levels. Traditional fats reduce inflammation, disease, depression and anxiety along with urges for bad fats. They actually help you to burn fat while reducing risk of heart disease and cancer. Good fats feed the brain, keep us calm and lift our mood. Industrial oils do the opposite.
For health and well-being, replace chips and fries with seeds and nuts. Try guacamole on a warm corn tortilla instead of tortilla chips. Reach for a handful of almonds instead of crispy chicken wings. Order the shrimp salad instead of fried calamari. Baked chicken instead of deep-fried.
Consider wild salmon and sliced potatoes grilled in olive oil instead of fried fish and chips. The next time you’ve itching for a burger, brown your own juicy grass-fed beef patty in butter.
On top of those changes, supplement your diet with a high quality cod liver oil to give your brain and nerve cells a dose of therapeutic fat. You will notice the difference.
Fat is often packaged with sugar: ice cream, donuts, muffins and cookies. Although it always seems to be the fat that is blamed for obesity and health problems, sugar can be worse. Refined sugars are highly inflammatory. They contribute to anxiety, obesity, pain, hormone disruption, heart disease and cancer. Some even report panic attacks linked with sugar. Eating sugar only makes us want more sweets. Here again, good fats help as they boost mood and reducing cravings. Include more savory snacks: cheese and crackers, nuts, smoked salmon, deli meats, olives are a few ideas.
Coping with anxiety through exercise, yoga and other inner awareness practices, will also curb fat cravings. Calming body and mind reduces dynorphin-driven fat cravings.
You may crave greasy (and sugary) foods when under pressure, but by increasing good fats in your diet, reaching for savory instead of sweet, and taking steps to relax, you will enjoy a leaner, calmer, healthier body.