When you’re stressed out, you might be inclined to reach for a bag of chips or a cupcake.
That’s normal. According to a recent survey by the Harvard School of Public Health, NPR, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 39% of people say they eat more when they’re stressed out. Another 44% say they eat less when stressed, which is a bad idea because your body won’t be able to function or regulate your mood without the nutrients it needs.
But emotional eating isn’t healthy — at least, not if it makes you gravitate towards those quick snack foods. NPR’s Morning Edition got in touch with researchers who study how different foods affect people’s moods, and according to those experts, there’s a strong relationship between what you are eating and your stress levels.
For example, carb-heavy comfort foods like chips, cupcakes, and cookies fall high on the glycemic index, meaning that they cause blood sugar to spike quickly but then crash afterwards, according to David Ludwig, a professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Harvard University and a researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital.
As Ludwig told NPR, “when we feel stressed we seek foods that are going to comfort us immediately, but often times those foods lead to surges and crashes in hormones and blood sugar that increase our susceptibility to new stresses.” His research shows that the crash when blood sugars drop causes stress hormones like adrenaline to surge to high levels.
The experts suggested some foods that may help people regulate their mood and stress levels. Here are seven suggestions:
1. Fish like salmon are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Stress hormones like cortisol are associated with inflammation. However, omega-3s help the body deal with inflammation. Research shows that they also may help boost mood and promote social behaviour.
2. Canned tuna and sardines can provide a similar omega-3 boost.
3. Chia seeds and flaxseed are other ways for people to get omega-3s, but they have additional benefits too. Both are super healthy and often find a place on lists of superfoods that you should be eating.
4. Eggs are high in protein and vitamin B. The protein means they won’t cause that blood sugar spike like certain carbs, making them a great breakfast. Nutrition experts say that we should all be eating more eggs.
5. Kale or other dark, leafy greens like Swiss chard are packed with helpful nutrients, including vitamin A, vitamin K, and potassium.
6. Pumpkin seeds make a great snack, and provide both magnesium and zinc. Zinc is used to boost the immune system and magnesium is used to treat ADHD and anxiety. Athletes also use it to increase energy and endurance.
7. Dark chocolate is that rare treat that researchers keep telling us to eat more of, and for good reason. In addition to its high levels of antioxidants and its link to lower blood pressure, there’s also research that shows eating it is associated with improved mood and cognitive function. There’s even a correlation between per-capita chocolate consumption and Nobel prize laureates in a country.
There’s obviously no silver bullet stress treatment. But when looking for a snack that’s both tasty and nutritious, choosing one of the above is a much better way to go than opting for something that will crash your system.
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