Does Stress Make You Reach For Chocolate?

Does stress make you reach for Chocolate? It does me. Oops. That’s bad. Or is it? There is no question but stress is hard on your body. The inflammation caused by stress challenges your heart, your metabolic, your emotional health, and much more. One way to counteract the effects of stress is to make a plan for healthy foods and exercise when you’re under stress. 

Image of foil wrapped chocolate--Does stress make you reach for chocolate like it does me?

Riiight. When I’m stressed out, I’m reaching out for what’s quick or easy or available. Most often I reach for comfort foods high in fat and sugar and starch. And exercise? Fuagetaboutit. I don’t have the time. I’m too stressed. You, too? 

This is the third in my series of posts on stress and what we can do about it. (see Recognize Your Stress Levels and To Stress or To Sleep.) In this post, I won’t tell you all the foods and exercise you should be doing. You probably already know. But I will tell you WHY you might want to make better choices.

What Stress Produces

Dopamine, epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and cortisol are the most common stress hormones. These hormones stimulate the body for the “fight or flight” response. They affect basic body functions like blood flow, heart rate, and breathing. 

“Even minute changes in levels of these substances can significantly affect health.” For an in-depth discussion of these stress hormones read Stress: It’s Worse Than You Think.

The Calming Hormones

Our bodies produce several hormones that play a part in “calming” us. Various studies and reports say that DHEA, oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin reduce stress hormones. So-called “health” sites promote supplements or certain dietary changes to saying that their hormone-containing product will help you overcome the bad effects of stress. In reality, studies of these hormones and the supplements have had mixed results. We need more research to know how these hormones work and if supplements can help.

If you take supplements, please use caution. These supplements can and will interact with other medications. They can cause side effects and other health problems. Always consult your physician or your pharmacist before adding a supplement to your regime. Always tell your health care professional which supplements you take. 

It’s Complex

The study of hormones is complex. Genetics, psychology, physiology, and chemistry all play a role in the processes and the effects of hormones. Interdisciplinary studies take time. But what’s a person to do until we know more?

Create a plan. A stress plan. You are in charge, create your personal stress plan.

Diet and Stress

Do you reach for chocolate when you’re stressed? I do. Chocolate is one of my “reward“ foods. It makes me feel good. 

Small amounts of dark chocolate can be good for you. But too much can cause health problems you want to avoid. 

There are studies that suggest that under stress, your reward signaling and reward sensitivity are significantly lower.  This leads to food choices that are higher in fat and sugar. Studies suggest that the more high-fat and high-sugar foods you eat, the more you need to eat to feel the same reward signal. 

Stress is the psychological equivalent of ragweed. Once the body becomes sensitized to pollen or ragweed, it takes only the slightest bloom in spring or fall to set off the biochemical alarm that results in runny noses, watery eyes, and the general misery of hay fever. But while only some of us are genetically programed to be plagued with hay fever, all of us have the capacity to become sensitized to stress.

Psychology Today

What does all this mean? It means that stress does make you reach for chocolate. Or for your favorite high-fat, high-sugar foods and drinks. And once you’re stressed, it’s difficult to not devolve into a poor diet that will only lead to more stress and more cravings.

So while we don’t understand why some foods make us feel better. It is important to be proactive and create healthy choices to combat stress BEFORE we are stressed. 

Healthy Choices

You’ve probably seen the USDA’s my plate campaign. 

chooseMyPlate.gov image of the recommended portions of the five food groups.

Explore your favorite foods that fall into healthy choices and plan which ones will help you deal with stress. 

Some foods are rich in nutrients that can help with high blood pressure (potassium), or headaches (magnesium). Which foods are best for stress? It depends upon your body, your health, and your food preferences. One thought is that if you make healthier choices a routine, you’ll choose the less healthy options less often. Even under stress.

An occasional slip into the high-fat, high-sugar foods when stressed won’t cause harm. But if you don’t have a plan for healthier eating, you’ll end up making food choices that won’t help you feel better. 

Stressed? Reach for… Exercise

If stress makes you reach for chocolate-exercise. Image of man walking up stairs in forest

According to WebMD, “Virtually any form of exercise, from aerobics to yoga, can act as a stress reliever.” The news and advertisements have long advised us that exercise releases endorphins. The runners’ high is real. But the endorphins don’t work alone. Serotonin and norphenylephrine are also released during exercise. 

Until recently, studies suggested that you needed at least thirty minutes of intense exercise to get an endorphin release. New evidence suggests that you can get a slower, less intense release of endorphins by exercising for fifteen minutes several times a week. And it still contributes to your well-being.

So don’t sweat it. Or—do. It’s your choice. 

In times of high stress, it is difficult to find the time or the energy to exercise. But again, try to make a plan for it. Look at your environment and situation. Can you take a five- or ten-minute fast walk around the hallways of the hospital every hour or two? That will help. 

According to  J. Kip Matthews, PhD, a sports psychologist, “The more sedentary we become—not getting regular exercise—the less efficient the body is at dealing with stressors that are being placed on it.”

Maybe you don’t want to or can’t step away from your situation. But you could do some simple stretches or march in place or dance for fifteen minutes. Get your body moving. 

What Do You Reach For?

Does stress make you reach for chocolate? If it does, don’t beat yourself up for it (and cause more stress). But do make a plan for how you want to react to stress. Choose the best foods and exercises for you. Do you have a certain food or exercise you use for stress reduction? Your comment below may help someone else reach for healthier foods and for exercise. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *