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Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Holidays


The science behind your holiday cravings

Adapted by Jessica Kovarik, RD, LD, Extension Associate, from materials written by Tammy Roberts, MS, RD, LD, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist in Barton County, University of Missouri Extension


Most of us already feel stretched to our limit with our daily activities. Add the hustle and bustle of the holidays to that list and it is easy to become overwhelmed and stressed. When stressed, some people turn to food for comfort, which is actually due to chemical reactions that take place in the body when under stress. By knowing why you crave certain foods, you can learn to make healthier choices when under stress, while still eating your holiday favorites in moderation.

As stress rises in our body, cortisol, a stress hormone, rises as well. Cortisol causes an increase in the desire for carbohydrates. When you consume a large amount of carbohydrates or sugar, your pancreas releases a large amount of insulin to utilize the sugar. That can sometimes cause blood sugar to drop below normal with high blood insulin levels. As blood sugar levels go down, a chemical called neuropeptide Y is released in the brain. Neuropeptide Y may cause cravings of carbohydrate-rich foods. This becomes a vicious cycle. Stress also stimulates the production of neuropeptide Y.

Insulin has another function. It lowers blood levels of all amino acids except tryptophan which normally has to compete with other amino acids to enter the brain. Once tryptophan enters the brain it is converted to serotonin. Serotonin helps to boost your mood. Therefore, foods that are high in carbohydrates and fats can actually produce a feeling of calmness. However, keep in mind that feeling is only temporary, especially if you’re still stressed.

Instead of reaching first for the holiday treats, try choosing a healthier carbohydrate first. For example, eat a whole-wheat roll or a small serving of stuffing, or drink a glass of low-fat chocolate milk. Then, enjoy a small portion of a holiday treat, such as a small piece of pie or one or two cookies. This will help satisfy your craving.

Galanin is the brain chemical that influences our desire for fatty foods. The stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine and corticosterone raise galanin levels, leading to cravings for fats. Again, satisfy your cravings but watch portion sizes. For instance, have your mashed potatoes with gravy if that is what you like, but try to use less gravy than you usually do. If you like your turkey fried, go ahead and enjoy it, but consider using the rest of your plate for foods such as vegetables and whole grains.

Some people crave salty foods when they experience holiday stress. It is thought that people crave salty foods because the crunching and grinding of the potato chips or pretzels helps relieve stress. If you’re the type that craves salty foods, remember to drink plenty of fluids or eat foods with fluid, such as soup, fruits and vegetables.

Another thing we may reach for in times of stress is caffeine. Like sugar and fat, caffeine also provides something many desire – a jolt of energy. Too much caffeine can prevent you from getting good rest. Without proper rest, it’s hard to accomplish all you need and the stress cycle continues.

Endorphins, which are chemicals released in response to specific events, also play a part in cravings. It is thought that both sugar and fat are some triggers that cause the release of endorphins in the brain. Therefore, when foods that are sweet or high in fat are tasted on the tongue, endorphins are released making the tastes instantly enjoyable - and that makes us want more.

With stress, chemical reactions and endorphins all working to increase the desire for certain foods, the best thing to do is to eat a healthy diet. Include plenty of whole grain foods, fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk and lean meats. Make sure you get a variety of these foods and eat at least three times a day.

In fact, healthy eating can actually help your body withstand stress. Stress weakens the body’s immune system and a healthy diet can help combat stress-related illness. More magnesium, vitamin C, and B vitamins are needed in times of stress. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables provide these needed nutrients.

Preparing for the holidays, you may forget to pay attention to your feelings of hunger. By listening to your body and eating when you’re hungry, you’ll prevent overeating later, help curb some of your cravings and stay energized. Signs of hunger include: slight stomach discomfort, growling, and feelings of fatigue. Some people find it helpful to eat small frequent meals to keep their energy level up.

Because you may be out of the house, on the road or shopping during the holidays, keep things like cheese, peanut butter, whole wheat crackers, whole or dried fruit, nuts, yogurt, or carrots handy as a quick, healthy snack. Foods with protein can help you to feel full longer and help curb the carbohydrate cravings. Snacking may also help you eat less at a meal, especially when you go long periods of time between eating.

Exercise is another way to help boost energy levels during the holidays. Exercise helps your body to relax and release emotional tension, helping you fall asleep faster and get better quality sleep. In addition, people who exercise describe feelings of psychological well-being.

In addition to allowing yourself to eat the foods you crave in moderation, eating a healthy diet and exercising, work towards reducing your stress levels this holiday season. A good place to start is by reading Add downtime to your holiday list.

By understanding how stress can cause cravings, you’ll be able to make better food choices this holiday season. Remember, in addition to eating a healthy diet make sure to enjoy the foods you crave in moderation. By limiting time between meals, you’ll help prevent overeating later. Also, be sure to exercise during the holidays to help reduce stress and improve sleep.

And most importantly, be sure to enjoy the holidays.



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Last update: Thursday, December 17, 2009