The holiday season is one of the busiest and most stressful times of the year. During these times, many turn to traditional comfort foods like chocolate and ice cream to help them reduce their stress. However, research suggests it’s actually not the high-fat and high-sugar comfort foods that do the trick, but rather, it’s superfoods.
Superfoods are items that are found to provide health benefits beyond your basic nutrients, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“Many of these ‘superfoods’ also work to boost glutathione in the body: an amino acid in charge of detoxification. So superfoods nourish and detoxify, and in this way, they combat stress,” said stress expert Pete Sulack, author of “Unhealthy Anonymous,” a book about stress management and overall wellness.
The top superfoods that are recommended to munch on when feeling anxious are kale, broccoli, leafy greens, celery, nuts, oily fish like salmon, fermented foods like kimchi, herbs and spices, and organic berries high in vitamin C. Other examples of superfoods are sees like pumpkin seeds or flaxseeds, cashews, turkey, spinach, milk, pistachios, oatmeal, avocado, yogurt, and dark chocolate.
Both animal and human studies have suggested that ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, can help reduce cortisol levels the body. Stress can increase levels of the hormone cortisol, which manages stress in the body.
How these foods influence the mood is still an active topic of research today, according to said Kate Brookie, a PhD candidate studying nutritional psychology at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
“Whole foods, especially fruit and vegetables, provide your brain with the nutrients necessary for key processes involved in mood and well-being,” she said.
For instance, vitamin C is involved in the production of dopamine, a feel-good hormone associated with motivation and drive, Brookie said, adding that B vitamins and carbohydrates are associated with the synthesis of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in our daily moods.
“It could be that eating a high-quality, whole-food diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, provides the nutrients for these systems to function more optimally, leading to better mental health,” Brookie said.
Meanwhile, there are some other foods that might do the opposite.
“Innately as humans, we know that food can relieve stress. That’s why we refer to ‘comfort foods,’ ” Sulack said. “The only problem is that most ‘comfort foods’ like french fries, ice cream and macaroni and cheese offer some release of brain chemicals that make us feel good for the moment but in the long run cause the body more stress and the brain more distress.”
Foods that may stress the body, he said, are processed foods such as deli meat and foods high in sugar and high in caffeine, like some energy drinks or sugary sodas for example.
“One of the biggest causes of stress is your blood sugar. When blood sugar is between the glucose levels of 75 to 95 nanograms per deciliter, the body functions well. The more time you spend outside that range, the more your body feels stressed,” Sulack said.
He suggests watching out for ingredients in the food as well. Ingredients to limit include sugar, saturated fats and trans fats, refined carbohydrates, casein-containing items, such as processed foods, and the artificial sweetener aspartame, Sulack said. Also, watch your alcohol consumption.
Sometimes, difficulty managing stress and negative emotions have both been implicated as contributors to eating disordered behaviors, such as binge eating, said Julie Friedman, vice president of the Eating Recovery Center’s compulsive overeating recovery effort program in Chicago.
In those cases, it is important to consult with a doctor and seek support.