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You’ve just come home from a long, stressful day, and all you want to do is relax. Are you really hungry? Maybe not, but a bag of chips would be great about now. Or, wait, maybe that cake you like …

If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Nutritionist Chrissy Wellington Garner, MS, CNS, LDN, CPT, at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, says it’s common for people under stress to crave sweets and carbs. These foods release serotonin, which naturally makes you feel happier and more relaxed. Alas, the nutritional value is low, and the feeling doesn’t last long; you get that first rush, then you experience the crash and find yourself craving more sweets again.

The foods you choose directly affect feelings of stress or well-being, Chrissy says, and the goal is to keep physiologically balanced throughout the day. She suggests trying healthy variations that satisfy you nutritionally and emotionally.

“If you want something sweet or crunchy, reach for a rice cracker or corn tortilla and top it with a little cheese, hummus or nut butter, for protein,” she suggests. “In fact, you can balance your blood sugar all through the day with balanced choices like veggies with hummus or apple with peanut butter.”

When your energy level drops, Chrissy recommends protein-rich foods, which give you a natural boost. “People often get into a four-o’clock slump,” she says. “Skip the candy and go for tuna, turkey, hardboiled egg, almonds or pumpkin seeds. These foods stimulate production of dopamine, which will make you feel more alert.”

If you have specific stress – whether it’s a worry or the excitement of planning a wedding – your cortisol level will increase, raising your insulin. This increases inflammation and throws off your sugar. You’re also more likely to gain weight in the midsection, Chrissy says. “That kind of stress can put your body into primitive ‘fight or flight’ mode. If you’re not eating right, your hormones and blood sugar levels will rise and fall all day. Your body wants to pack on weight in the middle to protect your internal organs from saber-toothed tigers and other dangers. Better to choose balanced foods in the first place.”

Many type-A personalities experience chronic stress as a condition of life, Chrissy says. To help manage that, she recommends a diet rich in complex carbohydrates with plenty of fiber: “A quinoa salad with beans, for instance, will increase serotonin levels for calmness but includes protein to prevent a blood sugar crash.”

Comfort & Myths

We all have foods that trigger pleasant memories. They might not have the effects we crave though. Your mother’s cherry cake with fudge frosting will taste divine, but it won’t help you sleep when you’re stressed. Chrissy says dairy products before bed are a good choice. “A warm glass of milk feels comforting to you, for example. Low-fat dairy products give you a good package of macro-nutrient balance – protein, fat and carbohydrate – and many yummy comfort foods contain dairy.”

Some people choose to unwind with liquor. Chrissy notes that alcohol is actually a depressant. “Plus, a cocktail before bed has so much sugar it can keep you from sleeping or wake you up in the night when your blood sugar level spikes again. That adds to stress.”

Many people think of sitting down with a cup of coffee as a way to de-stress. You might chat with a friend or read a book while sipping your favorite blend. But caffeine is working against you, setting up another cycle of craving. Fortunately, Chrissy says, you may be soothed simply by the familiar process of heating water, choosing a favorite mug and sitting quietly. “You can switch to herbal tea or decaffeinated coffee and still enjoy the same lovely effect.”

Chrissy also notes that popular energy drinks can inherently add stress to your system. “A single can of an energy drink can have twice the caffeine of a cup of a coffee,” she says. “This high-level stimulus can create an insulin-resistant environment inside you, because your cells have already taken in all the insulin they can absorb – this will raise your blood sugar level. You might be thin, healthy and athletic, but if your sugar level rises too high your performance can suffer.”

Pleasant Choices

It’s no surprise people turn to sweets in times of stress. In clinical studies, chocolate lovers’ brains light up in the same spot as drug users’ brains when they indulge their preferences. So, does that mean you have to give up chocolate? Chrissy says no, but allow yourself only one delectable piece of dark chocolate a day – and savor it. She also says it’s smart to limit breads, cakes and feel-good treats made with white refined flour and sugar. If you eat them on special occasions, have them with lunch or dinner so you can maintain blood sugar balance.

Food should be a wonderful part of life, and healthy choices can help you reduce stress and feel your best. Being aware of their effects puts you in charge and gives you a better handle on stress.