Remember that deep dive into the ice cream pint when you were stressed at work because of another fast approaching deadline? How about the incredible allure of chocolate when something went wrong in your day and it feels like your world is collapsing? It’s not your imagination. Your craving for decadent foods when you are stressed is relentless. It’s not at all in your control and has nothing to do with willpower. A very special and well-intentioned partnership between your brain, your hormones and your body unfortunately makes you do it.
We seek chocolate, ice cream or, pastries not just because they taste good. It’s actually our body’s attempt to put a brake on the effect of chronic stress.
Let’s try to understand how stress affects us on a physiological level. Short-term stress will stimulate the HPA (hypothalamic pituitary axis) system to secrete cortisol. This hormone uses the help of insulin and ramps up our body for the flight or fight response. To top that off, a part of our brain is affected by the release of corticotropin, a hormone and neurotransmitter involved in the stress response that controls our food intake.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is accompanied by increased secretion of insulin and cortisol. This results in insulin resistance and our brains don’t receive and properly understand the signals from our body when we should stop eating.
Sugary foods and processed fats decrease the aforementioned HPA axis response, thereby reducing our perceived stress. In addition to the chaos that our hormones are causing, the long-term anxiety set off by chronic stress will deplete our energy reserves. But fat and sugar filled foods not only help our body build up reserves and continue functioning, but also help us feel comforted in times of stress.
The escalating levels of cortisol released in chronic stress usher the excess calories straight to your abdomen, where they get deposited as fat. By virtue of its location, abdominal fat has privileged access to the liver. That allows it to be quickly mobilized for energy.
Here’s the mark of the body’s brilliance. Those fat deposits are absolutely crucial. They send out a metabolic signal that feeds back to the brain, telling it to shut off the stress response. Those who eat cookies and chocolate are trying to give the body what it needs to dampen output from their stress system. Eating seems to improve some of the symptoms of depression, so you won’t feel as anxious. This seems to be the body’s way of telling the brain, ‘It’s OK, you can relax, you’re refueled with “high-energy food”.’
The catch is, consumption of calorie-rich foods may make us feel better and function better, but it’s bad for long-term health. Stresses nowadays are as a result of long-term job insecurity, financial and family commitment. The stress goes on and on and we feel immobilized by it.
Luckily, there is a way out to turn off chronic stress! There’s exercise, a walk, yoga, meditation, hot baths and sex. They all stimulate the same pleasure centers in the brain that make us seek comfort food. Another strategy that we can use is to enjoy nutritious high-energy foods that will truly nourish us on a physiological and physical level.
When in need of a nutrient dense snack that will help you in times of stress, true dark chocolate (at least 75%) is the answer to our guilt-free stress control cravings! It contains high levels of magnesium and l-theanine, which helps regulate our mood and decrease stress levels acting as a natural physical and mental relaxant that leads to a state of alertness without drowsiness. It also contains phenylethylamine (the same chemical generated by the brain when falling in love), causing the release of endorphins. Avocados are also great for stress reduction. They contain tons of B vitamins, which are vital for healthy nerves and brain cells. Vitamin B helps us convert other foods into energy and will stop you feeling tired and lethargic during your day. They are also a great source of monounsaturated fats and contain potassium, which can lower blood pressure.
For the highest levels of l-theanine and magnesium concentrated in one snack, I like to make a chocolate avocado pudding. It is so creamy, rich and delicious that will melt of your stressors away!
- 2 ripe avocados
- 2 tbsp. good quality raw cacao powder
- 1-2 tbsp. maple syrup
- 3-5 dates (pitted and soaked for a few hours) or extra maple syrup
- A pinch of sea salt
- 2 tbsp. coconut milk or almond milk
- Dark chocolate shavings for garnish (optional)
How to Make:
- Put all ingredients (except chocolate if using) into a clean food processor and blend until smooth. Add a little more almond milk if the mixture is too thick.