The urge to eat when we’re stressed is an evolutionary instinct triggered by certain chemicals in the body. Our first instinct is to grab a cheese-laden pizza, a deep-fried samosa or a cream-laden pastry, rather than something healthy.

Boosters: ?Healthy foods can be real mood lifters.

The reason we tend to crave carbohydrate-rich foods when we are feeling low is because they quickly increase the level of serotonin—a chemical that is said to improve the mood and induce a sense of well-being and calm—and provide an immediate burst of energy. What we don’t realize is that the immediate mood-lifting effects of these fast foods are temporary—and, therefore, misleading. It’s the healthier options, which may not have as quick an impact on mood, that are actually better in the longer term.

So how does one combat the urge to reach out for tasty, instantly gratifying food that is unhealthy? Can certain foods really counter the chemicals released in the body during stress? The answer is yes. Let’s look at a few real-life situations and how to deal with them through food:

You are stuck at work late in the evening and are likely to miss dinner

Stress antidote: Have a glass of cold coffee made with low-fat milk and a wholewheat sandwich with meat, soya or cheese filling. Stress reduces the serotonin level. Milk not only contains whey proteins—which help boost tryptophan, a building block of serotonin—but also has the right amount of carbs for a quick effect. The sandwich provides protein and more complex carbs, which help in staying alert. A word of caution though— too much coffee can increase stress, so restrict the quantity.

You cannot sleep

Stress antidote: Eat oatmeal with banana. Stress interferes with the sleep-promoting hormone, melatonin. It is found in foods such as oats, corn, brown rice, ginger, ripe tomatoes, bananas, parsley, soya and dates.

Try consuming oatmeal with milk; it is a good combination of complex carbs and fibre. Eating complex carbs with melatonin-containing foods makes melatonin more available to the brain, which leads to deeper and more satisfying sleep. This is a time-tested way of inducing sleep, rather than having oatmeal cookies or biscuits which can be high in simple sugars and, therefore, counterproductive. Bananas contain both melatonin and magnesium. Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant and the combination of melatonin and magnesium makes the banana a natural sleeping pill.

You are watching a nail-biting cricket match

Stress antidote: Eat a piece of fruit, any kind.

You need a surge of sugar to give you the energy that an adrenalin-charged body craves, and the natural sugar in fruit does just that in a healthy way. Most of the time we don’t realize that we have gone through a bagful of chips or a tub of ice cream while watching an exciting game. Choosing a fruit like an orange or a sweet lime, which one has to peel, will keep your hands and mouth busy, and likely give you a mood-lift too.

Your pitch to a potential client has just bombed

Stress antidote:Grab a chocolate, preferably one with nuts. Chocolates release endorphins—the happy hormones—while nuts have proteins to keep you focused. If an apple a day can keep the doctor away, some nuts every day can keep the psychiatrist at bay! Nuts are full of vitamin B, magnesium and zinc, all of which are needed to calm the nerves. A warning on quantity: It’s possible to binge seriously on chocolate when depressed, and that is not healthy at all. Also, choose nuts like almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts, which will help you both sleep better and improve cholesterol levels. Overeating, though, will add on the calories. So, do so in moderation.

You have a big interview

Stress antidote: Pick a green salad with grilled chicken, salmon or soya. Leafy greens are a rich source of vitamin B12, the intake of which is imperative for the release of feel-good hormones serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. The deficiency of these vitamins causes fatigue and irritability, even depression. Salmon and oily fish such as sardines and mackerel are rich in Omega-3, which is a mood booster. If you are a vegetarian, try flax seeds or walnuts, which also contain Omega-3.

Vishakha Shivdasani is a Mumbai-based medical doctor with a fellowship in nutrition. She specializes in controlling diabetes, cholesterol and obesity.

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