Snacking, Stress, and Caregiving

Are you prone to emotional eating? Here’s a scenario: You spent the day seeing to your parent’s needs, scheduling appointments, doing housework, and running errands. When you finally get a moment to catch your breath, you realize you haven’t eaten. You’re tired, you’re crabby, and you’ve still got a million things left to do. So for sustenance, you:

  1. Reach for the stash of nuts you keep on hand for just this situation. For dinner, you’ll stop by the supermarket for the best-looking salmon steak they have. It’s your favorite, and after all you’ve done today, you deserve a treat.
  2. Buy some time with a cup of coffee and a nutrition bar and plan to hit the drive-thru on your way home.
  3. Raid the pantry and go for the snacks—chips, pretzels, cheese twists—and a 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 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 poor sleep can leave you prone to medical conditions, including depression, and wear down your immune system.

Alternatives:

  • After your morning java, switch to green tea. It’s a powerful antioxidant with less than half of the amount of caffeine as coffee.
  • After mid-afternoon, switch to decaffeinated beverages.
  • A nibble of dark chocolate, which contains slight amounts of caffeine, can help you wean yourself off coffee. It also contains several chemical compounds that boost mood, and it’s loaded with antioxidants. Research indicates 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 provides no vitamins, minerals, or important nutrients. Too much sugar causes wild fluctuations of blood sugar levels, leading to mood swings and energy crashes. Eating too much sugar in any form can lead to obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Even fruit juices, which supply nutrients, should be limited.

Alternatives:

  • Fruits and vegetables contain naturally occurring sugars and, unlike juices, are packed with fiber, which prevent blood sugar spikes. Stick to those that are 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. These all contain pigments called carotenoids. A recent study by the journal Psychosomatic Medicine has linked themto a healthy mental outlook.

Processed Foods

Many packaged 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. 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 feelings of exhaustion.

Alternatives:

  • 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 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.