We've all got that log of cookie dough in the back of the freezer waiting to come out at the end of a bad day.
"People soothe stress with foods, and those that trigger the reward centers in the brain most effectively are salty, fatty and sweet," explained Columbia University psychiatrist Dr. Drew Ramsey, author of “The Happiness Diet” and “Fifty Shades of Kale.”
In fact, recent research from Ohio State University shows that regularly eating high-calorie and high-fat foods when we're stressed also slows metabolism, a double whammy that can lead to an annual 11-pound weight gain. Fortunately, there are healthy satisfying snacks that soothe stress in the brain and body.
"You don’t need to shove a white carb in your mouth when the going gets tough," Ramsey noted.
Here's what to avoid the next time you're stressed--and 11 other mood-boosting foods to reach for instead.
Skip this: Glazed doughnut
Baked confections actually increase anxiety, says Ramsey. That’s because without fiber to slow digestion of all that sugar, glucose levels spike, which in turn raises the stress hormone cortisol.
Eat this instead: Oatmeal with cinnamon and honey
A hot, hearty bowl of oats delivers that yummy carb experience and bumps up your feel-good hormone serotonin. And because it’s also packed with slow-to-digest fiber, it won’t cause a zigzagging of blood sugar levels. Add cinnamon (shown to ease frustration) and a teaspoon of honey (satisfies a sweet tooth and boosts immunity). (Opt for this cleanest oatmeal option you can buy. )
Skip this: Pretzels
Beyond their satisfying crunch, pretzels are simple carbs that lift mood only briefly before sending it back to subterranean levels.
Eat this instead: Dark chocolate-covered almonds
The "chocolate cure" is real: A 2009 study by Swiss researchers suggests that eating dark chocolate reduces levels of stress hormones. It also lowers blood pressure nearly as well as drugs, per earlier studies. (Plus, it’s scrumptious!) Meanwhile, almonds are rich in energy-boosting protein and good-for-you monounsaturated fat, which another study linked to less depression.
Skip this: Potato chips
Worse than overloading on simple carbs is stuffing yourself with trans-fat. A study at Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that a diet high in trans-fats leads to weight gain--specifically around the middle, where it’s most dangerous to your health.
Eat this instead: Kale chips
Homemade kale chips have just a few ingredients: olive oil, kale, and maybe some salt. A recent study found that people who ate olive oil daily felt more satisfied and enjoyed a bigger boost of the happy hormone serotonin than those eating other types of fat. As for kale, research from the Harvard School of Public Health found that people whose blood contained high levels of carotenoids (an antioxidant) were significantly more optimistic. Kale is a great source of carotenoids, along with spinach, carrots, and sweet potatoes. (Check out this quick how-to video for amazing kale chips.)
Skip this: Mochaccino
Yes, caffeine is a proven mood-booster, stimulating dopamine activity in the brain and lowering risk of depression. But sweetened coffee drinks can set you back a whole day’s calories and a week’s worth of sugar. And what’s worse, the post-sugar crash may send you back for, gulp, a refill.
Drink this instead: Smoothie
Get your caffeine fix by blending java with soy milk (the folate it contains may boost serotonin levels), unsweetened cocoa powder (cue the dopamine, as with coffee), and a ripe banana (potassium lowers blood pressure).
Skip this: Granola bar
Most are just candy bars in disguise (and you already know that).
Eat this instead: Nuts and seeds
Grab a combo of pistachios, cashews, almonds, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds for a powerhouse package of fiber, antioxidants, and unsaturated fatty acids, all of which lower blood pressure. In one study, pistachios blunted the effects of anxiety in people taking a math test. Omega-3 essential fatty acids in walnuts have been linked to less depression; selenium in cashews and almonds has been shown to elevate mood; and tryptophan in pumpkin seeds helps the brain make serotonin. Just stick to one handful, though, because the calories add up.
Skip this: French fries
This All-American comfort food is little more than greasy fat, carbs, and probably trans fat, which data have linked to higher rates of depression, as well as ab flab.
Eat this instead: Sweet potato
It’s sweet and delicious, packed with nutrients (including optimism-boosting carotenoids) and fiber, so it’s low on the Glycemic Index.
“You’ll get the carby, sweet sensation without the blood-sugar spike,” Ramsey said.
Skip this: Ice cream
You know how it goes: The sugar spikes your levels of glucose and cortisol, plus the lactose can cause GI distress if you’re sensitive.
Eat this instead: Yogurt with berries
Find the creaminess you desire in plain low-fat Greek yogurt. It’s a great source of energizing protein and calcium, which your body needs to release feel-good neurotransmitters. Add fresh berries for sweetness and a mega-dose of stress-busting antioxidants and immune system-boosting vitamin C.
Skip this: Veggie lo-mein
This greasy, carb-heavy entrée delivers more blubber than bliss.
Eat this instead: Vegetable curry
Cozy up to a bowl of spicy Indian food and two things happen: When your brain detects capsaicin--the molecule in chile peppers--it releases endorphins to calm things down. And curcumin (curry) actually shields key parts of the brain against the effects of stress, per recent research. Add spinach for a hit of magnesium, which has been shown to ease tension headaches.
Skip this: Soda
Drinking regular soda is like eating 10 sugar cubes (Spike! Crash!). Diet soda isn’t any better; new research from the Weizmann Institute shows artificial sweeteners may tweak gut bacteria in the direction of obesity and diabetes. (If you need more proof that your diet soda habit isn't doing you any favors, this will do it .)
Drink this instead: Green tea
A 2011 study linked L-theanine, the amino acid in green tea, with feeling cooler under pressure. The green stuff also comes with a jolt of caffeine, so you’ll enjoy a focused calm.
Skip this: Nachos
Heavy cheese and simple carbs will not help you get your mellow on, no matter how much that plate of nachos tries to convince you otherwise.
Eat this instead: Guacamole with carrots
Creamy avocado is high in monounsaturated fat and potassium, which lowers blood pressure, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Monounsaturated fat also helps keep receptors in the brain sensitive to mood-boosting serotonin. With raw carrots, the simple act of crunching is a satisfying stress stopper.
Skip this: Mudslide
"Sweet, hard-liquor drinks are easy to guzzle," said Ramsey, and can set you back more than 500 calories--we’re talking to you, mudslide, margarita, mai tai, and piña colada. You’ll also get a glucose and cortisol spike, which is the opposite of what you need.
Drink this instead: Wine
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so it will lower your blood pressure and take the edge off your tension. With vino, you’ll also get some healthful flavonoids and antioxidants. Just sip slowly, stick to one glass, and enjoy the conversation.