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Coping with cravings: Experts offer ways to reduce stress, sustain appetites

Citrus fruits and berries are able to stabilize elevated levels of the stress hormone. Thinkstock / Special to The Forum1 / 4
Rich in antioxidants, avocados are a trendy and good-for-you snack. Thinkstock / Special to The Forum2 / 4
Nuts are an easy and healthy snack full of vitamin B. Thinkstock/ Special to The Forum3 / 4
Jennifer Bednar, a licensed nutritionist, and registered dietitian say cold-water fish, like salmon, is full of fatty acids that will reduce inflammation. Thinkstock / Special to The Forum4 / 4

FARGO — Craving those delicious holiday treats doesn't just happen because of enticing smells wafting from the kitchen. Area nutritionists say the stress hormone cortisol increases our body's cravings for high sugar and carbohydrates while simultaneously influencing overall mood. When willpower wanes, area nutritionists say that certain foods can sustain and reduce the physiological need for Grandma's sugar cookies.

"Foods will increase other chemicals and hormones inside our bodies that can affect stress, anxiety and depression," says Jennifer Bednar, a licensed diabetes nutritionist and registered dietitian with Essentia Health in Fargo.

Food not only creates a physiological response but also an emotional response, as certain dishes usually trigger memories of "comfort" and "home," according Melissa Smith, a nutritional health coach at Natural Grocers in Fargo.

"Depending on where you grew up, comfort food could mean anything from hotdish to a rack of ribs," Smith says.

Stressful situations — like a bursting-at-the-seams holiday schedule — will increase the hormone cortisol. This hormone increases inflammation and causes the body to hold onto sugar.

"As your blood sugars run high you will naturally crave those sugary and high-carb foods," Bednar says.

Smith points out that when people give in to this craving, blood sugar levels only increase as carbohydrates are broken down into sugar by the digestive system.

"Because of this, our blood sugar spikes, creating an insulin response," Smith says.

Sugar also increases the "happy" hormone, dopamine, in our brain as the body increases its insulin output to offset the sugar in our blood stream.

"The insulin works really well in getting that sugar out of our blood stream — so well that it usually drops our overall blood sugar level," Smith says. "When that happens, it creates stress on our body and we generate more cortisol."

A stress trigger is created by a person's insulin response, causing a person to crave yet another high-sugar carbohydrate treat. (The body thinks it needs the sugar it just lost because of the insulin injection.) Because of this, Bednar says most people experience this stress-craving carbohydrate cycle quickly.

"When we have that cortisol stress response, we instantly start craving sugar or things that will increase our blood sugar quickly so it's going to be quick carbohydrate foods like chips, candy, muffins and those kinds of things," Smith explains.

Carbohydrates do not have any fiber or healthy fats that stabilize blood sugar, Smith says.

When feeling stressed and deciding what to eat, Bednar and Smith say you should look for specific vitamins and minerals found in a variety of foods instead of reaching for that emotionally-satisfying but not appetite-sustaining bagel.

Consider grabbing these five snacks instead.

  1. Citrus fruits and berries. "Berries are a really delicious, high-antioxidant food," Bednar says. Full of vitamin C, citrus fruits and berries stabilize elevated cortisol levels.
  2. Nuts or seeds. "Walnuts or seeds are quick, go-to snack that can improve the body's resiliency," Smith says. Nuts and seeds have vitamin B that aid in tissue repair and immune support.
  3. Cold-water fish. Although both Bednar and Smith say fish is not the most appetizing snack or quick meal for most, it is an excellent option to reduce stressors on the body. "Foods that have omega-3 fatty acids will reduce inflammation," Bednar says. "These will be the fatty fishes like salmon or herring, even tuna has good fatty acids."
  4. Eggs. "High-protein foods like eggs are known to keep people full for longer," Smith says. Eggs also contain B vitamin. Folic acid and B12 deficiency can trigger depression in some people, according to Everydayheath.com.
  5. Avocados. Rich in antioxidants, avocados are the trendy and good-for-you snack, according to both Bednar and Smith. They have been known to increase antioxidant absorption from other foods as well, according to Healthline.com.

Although there is no quick fix, Bednar and Smith say people can reduce stress in their bodies by being mindful of what they consume.

"Choose whole foods that are more nutrient dense so your body is better supported," Smith says. "If we reach for things like fresh fruits, veggies, healthy proteins and good fats, then our bodies will have the building blocks of what they need so they can be able to respond better to outside stressors."

4 tips to cope with cravings

Bednar and Smith offer tips to try out during this time year when temptation to indulge is abundant.

"There are variety of different coping mechanisms, but a person can really do whatever helps them to naturally relieve stress without going towards food," Bednar says.

  1. Drink water. "Water helps because when you are dehydrated, you get the munchies," Bednar explains. "Keep a water with you and track it." Apps like MyFitnessPal can log ounces of water so people keep hydrated.
  2. Be consistent with meals and don't skip. Bednar admits keeping consistent mealtimes can be difficult, especially during this time of year, but most people feel better if they eat around the same time every day. "If you know you're going to a party and going to have a large meal, don't skip prior to that to make up for it," Bednar says. Bednar reminds that skipping meals usually results in overeating later.
  3. Set a timer and wait. Bednar suggests setting a timer to wait a few minutes when a craving hits instead of quickly seeking out sweets. "Exercise or meditation is also a good option to naturally relieve stress and distract the mind," she says.
  4. Add protein. "If you are going to have that high-carb or high-sugar food then add protein to it. This will help, because it will delay the digestion of the carbohydrate and stick with you longer," Bednar says. When Bednar indulges, she says her go-to is dark chocolate and peanut butter.
April Knutson

April Knutson is lifestyle-focused journalist producing stories for the Forum News Service about people, health, community issues, and services. She earned her degree in both English Literature and Mass Communications. After working as a digital marketing specialist and web design consultant for a few years, she joined Forum Communications in 2015. She grew up on a farm near Volga, S.D. Follow her on Twitter @april_knutson.

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