It’s been a long day. I deserve a cookie.
If you’ve ever thought that, you’re not alone. Even if you do your best to make healthy food choices most of the time… Everyone slips up.
But don’t blame yourself for not having enough self-control just yet… New research shows strong willpower may not be enough to stop your cravings for unhealthy snacks when you’re stressed.
Researchers in Switzerland gathered 51 people who were interested in living a healthy lifestyle…but who sometimes ate bad foods.1
To create a stressful situation, researchers had 29 participants dunk their hands in ice-cold water while being videotaped.2 The remaining 22 people made up the control group. Then they showed them pictures of healthy and unhealthy foods. They each picked out which ones they wanted the most.
The people who underwent an ice-water bath chose the unhealthy foods more often than the healthy foods. Brain scans revealed just thinking about the unhealthy foods was enough to cause an increase in reward signaling in their brains.3 It also led to a decrease in the regions that reward long-term goals… Like healthy eating.
This is because stress causes a flood of cortisol in your body. It’s the stress hormone. Cortisol causes blood sugar to rise… Then you crash right afterward. It makes you crave foods high in calories. These tend to be the ones highest in sugars and fats…and not much else.
Keep in mind, these effects were seen after just mild stress exposure… So think about how much greater your risk of stress-eating would be if you had moderate or even high stress levels.
Even worse, high cortisol levels make it easier to pack on fat…and harder to build muscle. Cortisol also makes it hard to sleep at night… This leads to even more stress.4
But there are natural ways to avoid derailing your diet. Even in times of stress.
- Remove temptations. You can’t eat what isn’t available. So if potato chips are your weakness… Don’t buy them in the first place.
- Take a breather. Breathe in through your nose to a count of five. Hold it for two seconds. Then exhale through your mouth to a count of seven. Repeat for five breaths and you’ll feel much calmer afterward. That’s because it reduces your body’s production of stress hormones.5
- Plan your indulgences. Georgia Kostas, a registered dietitian, recommends allowing yourself to indulge about 10% of the time.6 If you plan to indulge sometimes, you won’t feel like you’re missing out. You’ll also feel less guilty about having a cookie every now and then. Less guilt—another source of stress—means being less likely to devour the whole cookie jar.
Most important of all, get some physical activity each day. Something as simple as a 10-minute stroll around the block can be enough to clear your mind and relax your body.
What do you do to maintain healthy stress levels? Tell us in the comments, below.
In Good Health,
Publisher, INH Health Watch