Stress, as un-fun as it is to say, is a regular part of life. Whether it’s career, classes, finances, friendships, relationships or [insert stressor of choice here], stress happens to all of us at some point, and we all manage stress in different ways. Some of us can channel our extra energy by releasing it at an intense workout class, while others talk it out with a trusted family member or friend. There’s also some of us who have a tendency to stress eat.
(Yeah, hi. Right here—that’s me).
In my own personal experience, when I am stressed, I tend to crave foods that are usually not on my weekly menu. Think of foods like cookies, chips, French fries, ice cream, and pizza. Anyone else with me on this?
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with stress eating. Our team at aSweatLife is fans of the Health at Every Size Movement. and when it comes to stress cravings, we believe it’s important to come from a place of mindfulness, not deprivation. We fully support reaching for your favorite comfort foods in times of stress, as long as it is done intentionally and mindfully, all while recognizing it’s what you need at the moment. No guilt, no self loathing, no shame.
At the same, we also support the idea that it’s okay to take a beat and rethink whether your stress cravings might be satisfied with something just as delicious and maybe even more nutritious. Whether you crave crunchy, fried, greasy, salty, sweet or anything in between, here’s how to navigate stress cravings with the help of registered dietitians.
Why do we experience stress cravings?
Before we dive into some of the most popular stress cravings and what to eat instead, you may be wondering why do we even experience stress cravings in the first place. Well, according to Harvard Health, if we experience long-term stress, our adrenal glands release cortisol—the stress hormone. Cortisol increases appetite and motivation, which includes the motivation to eat. (How convenient.) Once a stressful episode has passed, cortisol levels will naturally fall, but if a person’s stress response gets stuck in the “on” position, cortisol levels may stay elevated.
Whether we’re experiencing emotional, mental, or physical stress, foods that are high in fat, sugar, or both create feedback in the body that actually lessen stress related emotions and responses. High fat and high sugar foods like chips, chocolate, ice cream, and pizza really are “comfort” foods in the sense that they counteract stress. Kind of crazy, but also kind of cool.
Now, before you find yourself elbow deep in a bag of family-sized Cheetos for dinner (because who’s never done that before), here’s what RDNs recommend for common stress cravings.
Common stress cravings
One of the most common stress cravings is chocolate. I know it’s my personal go-to, especially when the start of my cycle is right around the corner. Allison Gregg, registered dietitian and nutritional consultant for MomLovesBest, explains why many of us reach for chocolate in times of stress.
“Chocolate contains tyrosine, which is a precursor to dopamine. When dopamine is released into the brain, it lowers the level of stress. Chocolate also contains serotonin. Serotonin is a calming neurotransmitter and feelings of calm are extremely comfortable in times of stress.”
If you still want to enjoy chocolate, but in a more mindful way, Gregg suggests adding cocoa powder to items such as low-fat yogurt or low-fat milk.
“You will still enjoy the chocolate flavor without added calories, fat and sugar. Or try your favorite fruit dipped in a nut butter. This provides much more fiber, which promotes fullness and helps beat cravings.”
Nostalgic comfort food
Stress cravings can lead many of us to crave classic comfort foods like a cheesy casserole, greasy pizza, or a plate of deep fried French fries. Instead, Rima Kleiner, MS, RD and blogger at Dish on Fish recommends adding protein to your recipes for some staying power. Some of her recipe recommendations include Garlic Shrimp Scampi with whole grain noodles, a bowl of homemade soup like Healthy Cod and Corn Chowder or Smoked Salmon Deviled Eggs.
If a bowl of ice cream is your favorite form of food to combat stress cravings, it’s because it’s the trifecta of taste.
Gregg fills us in: “Stress increases the intake of foods high in calories, fat and sugar and ice cream is a food that satisfies all three of these high nutrient profiles.”
Instead of calling up Ben & Jerry, Kleiner suggests enjoying a no-sugar-added chocolate-avocado pudding, frozen banana whipped into nice cream or a Salmon-Stuffed Avocado. Gregg says you can also have a bowl of low-fat yogurt or low-sugar pudding.
Craving salty foods like chips or pretzels when you’re stressed? It makes sense, explains Gregg.
“The body’s level of oxytocin increases when salt levels increase. Oxytocin is a ‘feel good’ hormone that is comforting during moments of stress. Chips typically have a high salt content and satisfying salty flavor.”
Instead of grabbing for a bottomless bag of chips, Kleiner suggests a bowl of air-popped popcorn drizzled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, roasted chickpeas, or Smoked Trout Dip with a side of carrot sticks or whole grain crackers.
If you don’t have any popcorn kernels, try popping one of these ancient grains instead. Another personal favorite? Dried kelp or seaweed, which not only quells salty cravings, it also delivers an array of other nutrients like iodine.
If you find yourself craving sweets during times of stress, like baked goods, cakes, candy, cookies or cupcakes, Kleiner recommends reaching for super-sweet fruit like a fresh orange, a juicy melon or dried fruit.
“If you need to bring in the big guns, try berries or dried fruit dipped in melted dark chocolate. Even better, add some protein to help increase satiety. Tuna salad made with grapes or celery with peanut butter and dark chocolate chips” are all great options, she says.
Craving something different?
If you find yourself craving something entirely different, Valentina Duong, a registered dietitian and body-positive powerlifter, reminds us to not beat ourselves up.
“Instead, tune in to what your body really wants. Think about color, temperature and texture. Do you want something chilled, cool, hot or warm? What about creamy and smooth or crunchy? How about salty, sour or sweet? Think about what combination you really want and add color to it. If you really want that bag of chips, go for it, but can you add in a creamy hummus dip to help make you more satisfied for longer? Craving a whole box of cookies? What about a cookie and a warm cup of milk?”
How to navigate stress cravings
When navigating stress cravings, it’s a-okay to reach for your favorite sweets and treats, but Shena Jaramillo, MS, RD at Peace and Nutrition, says it’s also all right to choose nutrient dense foods like almonds, celery sticks with a nut butter or a fresh mango.
By reaching for a more nutrient-dense option, we are not only nourishing our bodies, but we are also being mindful about our food choices. Once we’ve made a more mindful selection, then we can reexamine how much we really want that bag of chips or that piece of candy. Who knows? You may not even want it anymore.
“A sweet fruit might be just as satisfying once we bite into it, but it likely isn’t going to be the first treat we’re driven to in times of extreme stress due to the physiological toll on the body from stress,” says Jaramillo.
The next time you’re feeling stressed and find yourself looking for something to satisfy that stress craving, take a moment to consider a more mindful option instead— and then, if you’re sure of want you want, reach for that comfort food with no guilt.