When a bad day makes you feel like tearing your hair out, many of us head to the refrigerator for a strong dose of comfort food. However, you may be about to sink your teeth into a treat that will leave you feeling even more stressed out and miserable than before!
Whether it’s a slice of apple pie or a scoop of your favourite ice cream, everything in moderation can feed your sense of well being, but too much of a good thing can have long term effects on your mental health.
Here are 5 foods to ditch when you’re feeling down, along with some healthy substitutes that are satisfying without the guilt.
1) Processed Foods
Got a hankering for a hot dog? Research from The British Journal of Psychiatry found that a steady diet of processed and fatty foods such as hot dogs, sausage, and deli meats increases the risk for depression.
In the study, people who mainly ate fried food, processed meat, high-fat dairy products, and sweetened desserts had a 58% percent higher risk of depression than those who ate “whole” foods such as fish and vegetables.
However, there’s no need to pass over your craving for protein. Try a turkey sandwich on fresh whole grain bread with a dab of low fat mayo. This anxiety-busting lunch is packed with tryptophan, an amino acid believed to combat stress because it helps the brain produce serotonin – your brain’s feel good chemical. Tryptophan can also be found in chicken, bananas, peanut butter, oats, cheese, soy, and nuts.
Candy is as bad for your mental state as it is for your waistline. You’ll initially get a surge of energy as the sugar is absorbed into your bloodstream BUT you’ll crash just as fast as your body increases insulin production to deal with the sweetness.
The end result? You’ll end up feeling low and tired for far longer than you felt good for.
Opt instead for some yummy Greek yoghurt with fresh blueberries which have been linked to sharper cognition, along with cheese, nuts and beans. These foods contain higher levels of norepinephrine and dopamine which have been proven to increase mental alertness. They also provide sustainable energy that helps prevent mood swings.
However, if you can’t resist the craving for chocolate, choose dark chocolate. There’s a chemical reason behind it called anandamide, a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that’s correlated with temporarily blocking feelings of pain and depression.
Chocolate is even being referred to as “the new anti-anxiety drug.” One study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology also revealed that those drinking an antioxidant-rich chocolate drink equal to about 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate daily, felt calmer than those who did not.
3) Caffeinated Drinks
Tea, coffee, cocoa and energy drinks are definite no-no’s when the stress is on. Although they give you a temporary boost, they also contain neuro-stimulators like caffeine which is proven to heighten stress and even cause insomnia.
A study by researchers at Duke University Medical Center shows that your morning coffee has effects on the body that persist until bedtime and amplifies stress consistently throughout the day. These results show for the first time that the effects of caffeine last considerably longer than originally thought and that caffeine exaggerates stress in people who consume it every day.
“The effects of coffee drinking are long-lasting and exaggerate the stress response both in terms of the body’s physiological response in blood pressure elevations and stress hormone levels, but it also magnifies a person’s perception of stress,” said James D. Lane, Ph.D., associate research professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke and lead author of the study.
If you’re craving the comfort of a hot drink, try relaxing with an herbal tea. Chamomile, peppermint and lemon balm teas are all soothing and delicious options. Valerian root is also well known for its sedative properties and is often taken to promote good sleep. However, it is also known to ease tension.
What can be more relaxing than a glass of Chardonnay? Turns out your favourite vino may in fact be stressing you out. Alcohol stimulates the release of cortisol, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
The study found that heavy drinkers and those who had recently increased their drinking had higher levels of the stress hormone. Alcohol can also cause dehydration. Symptoms of dehydration include nausea, fatigue and muscle weakness, all of which can lead to becoming anxious.
But isn’t it so hard not to drink when you’re out with others who are? Give a virgin mocktail made with fruit juice a chance, or a simple glass of water on ice with a twist of lime or lemon. You may just be surprised at how easily this works. It still looks like you’re drinking, it still feels like you’re drinking (if you’re only out for one or two) and you still get to hang with your friends without feeling like a square peg. You can even get creative by adding slices of cucumber or frozen berries to your drinks. There are also many non-alcoholic wines and beers on the market.
5) Potato Chips
They may pack a satisfying crunch, but potato chips are also packed with simple carbs and nasty trans fats. A study at Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that a diet high in trans fats leads to weight gain—specifically around the middle, where it’s most dangerous to your health. While it was a pre-clinical study, it remains of note, in my opinion, not only because of where the fat was dependently deposited, but that it lead to weight gain even on same total calories.
All carbohydrates prompt the brain to make more serotonin. For a steady supply of this feel-good chemical, it’s best to eat complex carbs, which take longer to digest.
Good choices, instead, include whole-grain breads, pastas, and breakfast cereals, including good old-fashioned oatmeal. Complex carbs can also help you feel balanced by stabilizing blood sugar levels.
If you’re craving some crunch, a tasty vegetable salad is also a healthy option. Dark leafy greens like spinach are rich in folate, which helps your body produce mood-regulating neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. Try ingredients like kale, acai berries, cheese, sliced eggs, and avocado to liven up a ho-hum salad.
According to research published in the Nutrition Journal, those who ate half an avocado with their standard lunch reported being 40 percent less hungry three hours after their meal, and 28 percent less hungry at the five-hour mark compared to those who did not eat avocado for lunch. The study also found that avocados appear helpful for regulating blood sugar levels. This combination of satiety and blood-sugar regulation can help keep your mood steady, even in times of stress.
Of course, no one is saying that the odd slab of chocolate cake or a pizza night is out of the question, but limit the indulging to a level that makes sense for you. Diet plays an enormous role in how we feel both physically and emotionally, so feed the machine with healthy, delicious foods that nurture your body and your mind and keep your spirit chipper!