There may be some people who boil up a batch of Brussels sprouts to munch on after a stressful event. But I doubt they are in the majority. For as good (to some) as these mini cabbage-like vegetables are, they just dont have the stress-relieving power of many other foods.
Putting something in our mouths when we are experiencing stress seems as inevitable as drinking water when we are thirsty or saying ouch when we stub our toe. I have a friend who keeps a bowl of Cheerios next to her computer. She has two young adult daughters who see their mom as an on-duty complaint department. I get at least one or two e-mails a day from them, she told me, and they expect me to solve all their problems. I have to control myself so I dont send back angry replies. But I find that if I munch on about a cup of Cheerios before I open the e-mails, I stay calm and write back something helpful.
Cheerios are not going to turn your children into mature adults or solve other problems, except perhaps distracting a bored two year-old. But they, along with many other low-fat, low-protein carbohydrate foods, have the ability to make stressful situations tolerable. There is nothing magical about breakfast cereal, popcorn, granola bars, whole-wheat toast, cheery Twizzlers, or baked potatoes. And most of the time when you munch on these foods, your mood will neither get better nor worse.
However, when you are upset, angry, irritated, worried, frustrated, annoyed, distraught or anxious, eating a simple carbohydrate food by itself, without protein or added fat, will, within twenty minutes or so, make you feel better. And only carbohydrates will work. Brussels sprouts and other vegetables, fruits, or protein foods like chicken or eggs do not have the same power.
When carbs are eaten and digested, an amino acid called tryptophan gets into the brain. This amino acid is the building block of a very important brain chemical, serotonin. Produced as soon as tryptophan enters the brain, serotonin removes the unpleasant emotions we experience when we are stressed. We feel less angry, irritated, and anxious and feel more calm, relaxed and happy.
Any carbohydrate except fructose (fruit sugar) will bring about this effect. So if you munch on sugar-coated breakfast cereal or dip into a bowl of brown rice, the effect will be the same. Serotonin will be made and stressful emotions will begin to go away. Fruit does not have this effect on serotonin and stress reduction because the body does not process fruit sugar the same way it processes table sugar and starch. So while eating an apple or banana is good for you nutritionally, doing so will do nothing for your stress.
Eating your way out of stress has to be done carefully, lest it leave you with more upset in the form of added pounds. Just as there is a correct dose for an antibiotic or pain reliever, there is also a correct dose of a stress-relieving carbohydrate. For most people, eating between 120-150 calories of a low or fat-free carbohydrate should initiate the process of bringing tryptophan into the brain. An obese person should eat slightly more carbohydrate, about 170-180 calories worth.
This may seem more like a prescription for weight gain than for relieving stress. It is not. In addition to improving mood, serotonin turns off the urge to eat. It is a natural appetite suppressant, which comes in handy because many people find it very hard to stop eating when they are stressed. Even though some calories must be consumed to produce the serotonin effect, additional munching will be halted.
Three rules must be followed to make stress reducing eating successfu1:
1) Do not eat the carbohydrate with protein or after you have completed a meal containing protein. Protein prevents serotonin from being made.
2) Avoid carbohydrate with more than 2 or 3 grams of fat per serving. Not only does fat add unwanted calories, it slows down digestion.
3) Eat the snack and then remove yourself from the food. It takes about 20 minutes or so for the first feelings of stress relief to be felt. Do not continue eating for 20 minutes until you feel something.
Stress will always be part of our lives. But thank goodness we have been given an easy way of living through it. The solution is as near as that potato on your plate.