Why do I keep comfort eating?
Do you find yourself reaching for a snack whenever you feel nervous, anxious or a bit stressed out? If so, you are definitely not alone. Unfortunately, our emotional wellbeing can influence our attitude towards food and a lot of this is down to our nervous system.
When our ‘fight or flight’ reflexes are stimulated then, as you might expect, cortisol will be released to promote feelings of alertness and to support your muscles, heart and lungs. Understandably, in a survival scenario, your body is going to need as much energy as possible and, to this end, cortisol can encourage cravings for energy-dense foods, such as sugary snacks or carb-heavy meals.
Unless you’re going to be fleeing for your life, though, you don’t really need all these extra calories. It also doesn’t help that, these days, most of us are conditioned to view food as a reward. If we’re feeling down or nervous, food can temporarily make us feel a bit better by promoting the release of happy hormones.
So, anxiety and food cravings are linked, but is there any way that food can actually counter our anxiety levels? Well, yes, but it’s all about eating the right foods when we feel nervous, rather than reaching for something sweet and sugary. That’s why, below, I’ve listed a few of my favourite foods to help you out when you’re feeling a bit nervous!
Getting a bit nervous over an upcoming exam? Walnuts (as their appearance might suggest!) are considered to be an excellent snack for your brain. They contain plenty of vitamin E, a vital antioxidant that can actually help to protect your brain, in addition to omega-3. As our nutritionist Emma discusses in her blog, ‘9 incredible health benefits of omega-3’, this nutrient has a plethora of benefits when it comes to your mind and nervous system.
For a start, it’s naturally anti-inflammatory so it can help to curb the pro-inflammatory effects of cortisol. This benefits your brain too, as it can reduce inflammation there which would otherwise have interrupted important brain signals. Studies have even found that omega-3 could potentially reduce excess cortisol levels, thus reducing feelings of stress or anxiety!1
There has been a lot of debate surrounding eggs recently, with many denouncing their content of cholesterol. However, as Emma points out, as part of a balanced, healthy diet there’s nothing wrong with eggs. In fact, they are one of the few foods that actually contain vitamin D, an important nutrient for your immune system and bone health.
Eggs are also rich in protein which could potentially help to prevent future hunger cravings but, when it comes to your mood at least, their main benefit lies in their content of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that actually plays an important role in supporting your sleep patterns and behaviour by being converted into serotonin, a mood-boosting neurotransmitter!
Turmeric has seen a boom in popularity in the last decade and its rise to fame isn’t undeserved. This spice, which has been used in cooking for centuries, has a whole host of health benefits. The main active component of turmeric, curcumin, is naturally anti-inflammatory, just like walnuts, which makes it useful for negating the pro-inflammatory effects of cortisol. It can also reduce oxidative stress.
In fact, one study found that curcumin was capable of reducing anxiety in obese adults.2 The trial involved 30 overweight participants, splitting them into two groups. The test group received 1g of curcumin a day for 30 days, whilst the control group were given a placebo for the same amount of time. The research found that the group taking curcumin had lower anxiety levels after the trial.
Of course, this is a relatively small study so more research would need to be conducted, but the initial results are promising.
Blueberries, cherries, strawberries, raspberries and goji berries: they all share one thing in common! They’re all extremely rich in antioxidant properties and vitamin C. When it comes to your mood, reducing oxidative stress can be extremely useful, especially since chronic stress may increase free-radical damage. One study conducted using anxious students as test subjects found that vitamin C actually helped to reduce anxiety, again hinting at the importance of countering free-radical damage!3
Oats are renowned for being a top health food: they’re rich in fibre to support your digestive system, they contain plenty of B vitamins to promote healthy energy levels and they contain tryptophan, that amino acid I mentioned earlier which can be converted into serotonin.
These can all benefit your nervous system and, thus, your mood, but it also helps that oats shouldn’t upset your blood glucose levels too much. This is important as fluctuating blood glucose levels can impact your energy levels and actually stimulate more unhealthy food cravings. Plus, if you do experience a sudden blood glucose crash, you might find your mood is affected and you become more irritable!
6. Fatty fish
Circling back to omega-3, in addition to walnuts, fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon and tuna offer plenty in terms of this nutrient. However, oily, fatty fish also provide another benefit – like eggs, they’re one of the few food sources of vitamin D. This means that, besides offering anti-inflammatory benefits, they can also support your immune system and cardiovascular health.
Of course, if you’re vegan or vegetarian, then eating more fatty fish might not be that attainable. In that case, if you’re really keen to improve your intake of omega-3 a supplement could be an option.
Okay, so technically this doesn’t actually count as a food but water is super important when it comes to your mood. If you’re not drinking enough water (and by enough, we mean 1.5-2 litres a day!), then you could become dehydrated. Dehydration is extremely bad for all areas of your body, especially your cognitive function and mood.
You’ll find yourself becoming more fatigued and less able to concentrate. You may also find yourself feeling more irritable and anxious. Not a winning combination! So, if you want to keep your mood stable, drink plenty of plain water every day (you can infuse with fruit for more flavour!) and, if you’re in need of a little boost, instead of turning to coffee or tea, you could try our Balance Mineral Drink.
If you’re interested in other drinks that could potentially support your mood, I’d start with herbal tea such as chamomile, which is naturally very soothing, or fermented drinks like kombucha, which can help to support your gut flora. Just make sure that you’re drinking plenty of water alongside these drinks as they may not offer much in terms of hydration.