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Snacking, Stress, and Caregiving

Are you prone to emotional eating? Here’s a scenario: You’ve been on duty seeing to your parent’s needs all day, scheduling appointments, doing the housework, and running errands. You finally get a moment to catch your breath only to realize you missed lunch and are about to miss dinner. You’re tired, you’re crabby, and you’ve still got a million things left to cross off your to-do list. So for sustenance, you:

  1. Reach for the stash of nuts you keep on hand for just this situation and make a note to stop by the supermarket for the best-looking salmon steak they have—it’s your favorite fish, and after all you’ve done today, you deserve a treat.
  2. Buy some time with a cup of coffee and a candy bar and hope you can manage to hit the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant before it gets too late.
  3. Raid the pantry and go for the snacks—chips, pretzels, cheese twists—all washed down with a sugared soda for quick energy. Then continue on with your tasks.

If you answered 2 or 3, you are not alone. When faced with stressful situations, many of us reach for caffeine, sugary or high-fat snacks, and fast foods for a quick fix. Yet once the momentary high wears off, these foods can cause a crash that leaves us with a nutritional hangover that is damaging to both body and mind:

Caffeine

In measured amounts (one or two cups of coffee per day), caffeine can enhance mood, alertness, and energy. But too much caffeine can lead to nervousness, anxiety, and mood swings. It also can disrupt sleep, especially if consumed late in the day. And diminished sleep quality and sleep time can leave you prone to a host of medical conditions, including depression, and wear down your immune system.

Alternatives:

  • After your morning java, switch to green tea, a powerful antioxidant with less than half of the amount of caffeine as coffee.
  • And drink only decaffeinated beverages in the late afternoon and evening.
  • A nibble of dark chocolate, which contains slight amounts of caffeine, can help you wean yourself off coffee while providing numerous health benefits. Dark chocolate also contains several chemical compounds that have a positive effect on your mood and cognitive health, and it’s loaded with antioxidants. Research shows that eating a small amount of dark chocolate two or three times a week can help lower blood pressure and prevent hardening of the arteries. It can also improve blood flow to the heart and brain, improving cognitive function and reducing risk of stroke.

Sugar

Though tasty (and addictive), sugar is an empty calorie that provides no vitamins, minerals, or important nutrients. Overconsumption of sugar in any form can lead to obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. The wild fluctuations of blood sugar levels in the body due to sugar binges and crashes can cause mood swings and zap energy levels. Even fruit juices, which supply nutrients, should be limited.

Alternatives:

  • Fruits and vegetables contain naturally occurring sugars and, unlike juices, are packed with fibers that prevent blood sugar spikes. Stick to those that are low in sugar content and rich in disease-fighting antioxidants, such as blackberries, blueberries, and green leafy vegetables.
  • For a mood boost, incorporate carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon, and cantaloupe, which contain pigments called carotenoids. A recent study by the journal Psychosomatic Medicine has linked these to a healthy mental outlook.

Processed Foods

Many processed and so-called fast foods contain artery-clogging trans fats and saturated fats not to mention huge amounts of salt. These have long been associated with increased risk of heart disease, stroke and even cancer, and they put major stress on the body. In addition, a recent study published in Nutrition Journal found that artery-clogging fats make people more prone to depression and anxiety, anti-social behavior and general feelings of malaise and exhaustion.

Alternatives:

  • As most processed foods lose their nutritional benefits in the manufacturing process, try to incorporate whole foods—foods that are close to their natural form—into your diet as much as possible. When choosing what to eat, ask yourself if it is what a person would have eaten one hundred years ago.
  • Many studies point to the numerous benefits of whole foods when it comes to improving health, preventing disease and enhancing mood. Whole grains, nuts, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and proteins rich in omega-3s such as fish are great staples to any stress-busting diet.
  • Fats that are solid at room temperature (such as vegetable shortening) or from animal products (such as butter, milk or cream and the fat on meat and poultry) are usually saturated or trans fats; limit them and choose vegetable oils when possible.