The Secret Reason You're Pigging Out (and What To Do About It!)


Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD

The fiscal cliff, poor economy, natural disasters, disturbing news stories, doomsday theories, and over-the-top reality TV…it’s all enough to make you want to bury your face in a bag of M&Ms.

And according to a new study from the University of Miami, that’s exactly what may be happening.

Researchers found that a perception of tough times triggers people to seek out high-calorie foods. And when study subjects were subconsciously primed to think about struggle and adversity, they ate 70% more high-calorie candy, compared to a group primed with a neutral message.

It may be that focusing on hardships leads us to perceive that resources are scarce, or, perhaps a “live for the moment” mentality kicks in.

  • But the good news is, you can combat the bad news. When life feels like one big bummer, here are six strategies for eating your way happy again (and as a result, prevent packing on unwanted pounds):

  • Find satisfying ways to enjoy veggies
  • Let’s face it, when you’re anxious or have the blues, you’re much more likely to crave carrot cake than carrots. But, eating more veggies may just be one of the top ways to get out of a funk. In one British study, nearly 80% of the participants reported that upping their veggie intakes improved their mood, including reducing anxiety and panic attacks.

But raw celery sticks aren’t going to make your mouth water. Instead, mist or brush veggies with an herb-infused olive oil and roast in the oven; stir-fry veggies in a naturally sweet aromatic sauce made from a combo of fresh squeezed orange juice, brown rice vinegar, fresh grated ginger, and minced garlic; or whip veggies like spinach or kale into smoothies along with berries, almond milk, and coconut.

Don’t “diet”
An eating plan based on deprivation and restriction will only set you up for more stress, frustration, and even anger. That’s probably why research shows that women who strictly or repeatedly diet binge more frequently and
weigh roughly 50 pounds more than those who don’t diet. Instead of thinking about what not to eat, focus on what to eat, particularly foods tied to weight loss, including produce, whole grains, beans, nuts, and healthy fats like avocado.

Grab a banana
Bananas get a bad rap for being diet busters, but they’re actually a nutrient-rich, feel-good food. A recent
Appalachian State University study, in which cyclists ate bananas, found that in addition to fueling exercise, the fruit triggered a positive shift in dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood. Some research also indicates that low dopamine levels may be tied to obesity. Plus, bananas are portable and neatly wrapped! Toss one in your bag, or incorporate into healthy snacks. Preslice bananas and store in the freezer to toss into smoothies; grill a banana in foil and drizzle with melted dark chocolate or sprinkle with chopped nuts; or make frozen banana pops as an ice cream alternative.

Reach for more cinnamon
Cinnamon has been shown to improve blood sugar regulation, which can make your mood more stable. And this aromatic spice also boosts brain activity. Research suggests that just smelling cinnamon can enhance brain function. That may be why cinnamon has been shown to improve scores on tests related to attention, memory, and visual-motor speed. Add a pinch to your morning cup of Joe; whip it into a fruit smoothie; fold it into yogurt along with fruit, nuts and toasted oats; and add it to savory dishes like lentil soup, black beans, and oven roasted cauliflower or eggplant.

Eat dark chocolate
Dark chocolate is an effective stress reducer for several reasons. First, it contains magnesium, which has been shown to fight, fatigue, depression, and irritability. Also natural substances in dark chocolate trigger the walls of your blood vessels to relax, which can lower blood pressure and improve circulation. One recent study looked at volunteers who rated themselves as highly stressed and found that eating about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate every day for two weeks significantly reduced levels of stress hormones. Enjoy a few tasting squares every day as a “you time” treat, or incorporate dark chocolate into meals. Add it to oatmeal, whip it into smoothies, or if you feel adventurous, try combining it with herbs in savory dishes like chocolate vegetarian chili.

Have you been particularly stressed out lately? Do you notice a connection between your diet and mood? Please tweet your thoughts and favorite mood boosting foods to @cynthiasass and @goodhealth

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. Connect with Cynthia on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest