Thursday, April 7, 2011

Looking for comfort?

A few days back I was talking to my cousin and it turned out that both of us were on a cooking spree. On the top of it we were gorging on desserts. Why would we do that? As newly married women, things like new people, new job, relocation, rearrangement of priorities and new responsibilities were our main concerns. As it has been said “Stressed spelled backwards is desserts.” So there we were, eating and sharing our concerns.

Mental stress and depression are by far the major reason when many of us reach out for comfort foods. As Peter De Vries stated “Gluttony is an emotional escape, a sign something is eating us.”

Comfort foods are generally foods which trigger our memories e.g. some broth which your mother cooked when you were ill. Or, they can just be your favourite foods. Most of the time, these are loaded with calories.

A number of hormones and neurotransmitters are involved in regulating our mood. Serotonin is the one which has been extensively researched upon. It is one of the controlling neurotransmitter for carbohydrate ingestion [1]. With increased levels of serotonin, a feeling of well being is induced.
Glucocorticoids like Cortisol are released in the bloodstream in stressful conditions, they create a craving for the comforts foods (high in fat and sugar).

Factors which affect neurotransmitters
1. Tryptophan - It is an essential amino acid (the building blocks of proteins). It is one of the main amino acid needed to make serotonin.

2. Insulin (a hormone secreted by pancreas which helps in the uptake of glucose molecules from the bloodstream into the cells) - the ingestion of carbohydrates results in a surge in insulin levels of the body. It clears the pathway of tryptophan which is then easily absorbed and is free to make serotonin. When we take simple carbohydrates (like sugar) then the insulin increases rapidly as compared to complex carbohydrates. It means that ingestion of sweets makes us feel better. But as soon as the effect is over we again feel cranky and thus repeatedly reach out for sugary foods.

3. Theobromine- this chemical is present primarily in cocoa beans from which chocolate is made. It is a vasodilator which means it can lower our blood pressure by relaxing the muscles of our blood vessels.

4. Caffeine - Caffeine acts as a stimulant. It increases our heart rate and blood pressure which makes us more alert. But it can make you dependent to the extent that you have withdrawal symptoms when you avoid it. It is commonly found in beverages like tea, coffee, energy drinks, colas etc.

5. Tyrosine- it is a non- essential amino acid. The cells of the brain convert tyrosine into dopamine, norepinephrine & epinephrine. These are body’s built-in opiates which help to dull pain. Vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine) helps in the conversion to dopamine.

6. Vitamin & mineral deficiencies- Deficiency of essential vitamins like B- complex, vit D, vit C and minerals like iron, magnesium, manganese, selenium, calcium and zinc leads to irritability and more sensitivity to stressful situations.Niacin (vit B-4) requires a special mention as it is a requisite for all the life sustaining reactions in the body. In fact it is present in the pathway of changing tryptophan to serotonin.

We reach out for comfort foods only when we are stressed, so eating them occasionally is not a problem...right? No. Because in reality, we consume much more calories than required in a short time period. Also, the daily stresses may precipitate it to become our regular habit. We should instead focus at prevention so that there is no chemical locha (imbalance) in our brains.

How do we prevent mood swings?

1. Have a healthy breakfast – whole cereals e.g. oatmeal, whole grain breads, Daliya (porridge), bran cereals, poha(rice flakes) are a good way to start the day. They have complex carbohydrates which help in boosting mood and keeping it that way for a longer period of time.

2. Eat fruits everyday – Fruits like oranges, grapes, pineapple, mango, kiwifruit, blueberries, papaya, avocado, pears or any other seasonal fruit should do the job.

3. Drink water - Have at least 8 glasses of water every day. Dehydration enhances irritability and atmospheric temperature changes affect mood. On a hot day people are observed to be more irritable. Avoid dehydrating beverages like colas, black tea, coffee and energy drinks.

4. Eat vegetables – vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, kale, spinach, beetroot, carrots, celery are rich in minerals and vitamins. Eat variety in your diet.

5. Don’t stay hungry- Having regular meals helps in regulating the insulin mechanism. It will prevent from reaching out for a high calorie food (like cookies/donuts/samosa) to relieve hunger pangs quickly.

6. Opt for healthy alternatives – Eat a fruit instead of a Kachori(a lentil filled salted indian croissant) or a cookie when hunger is the driving factor. Apple, papaya, pineapple or any seasonal fruit is a better option than gorging on fat filled goodies.

7. Include healthy fats- Sources of healthy fats (here, omega-3 fatty acids) include nuts, walnut oil, seafood (tuna, halibut), flaxseed oil

8. Exercise regularly

9. De-stress by activities – Cultivate your hobbies. Do yoga or meditation to de-stress.

In spite of the preventive factors; sometimes in our day-to-day living we do come across stress and need a quick relief. Let’s look at few foods which are a healthier option than donut with crème latte or macaroni with cheese.

Mood enhancing foods that might work for you!

1. Bananas – packed with carbohydrates, potassium & magnesium. Ideal if no meal has been taken due to long working hours.

2. Fresh Fruit juice- these have simple carbohydrates and vitamin C. The released insulin will have the desired effects and vitamin C counters oxidative stress in the body. They are also rehydrating. Avoid fruit juice concentrates which are high in sugar.

3. Walnuts- are rich in omega 3 fatty acids and magnesium. Deficiency of both of these interferes with mood.

4. Salad with greens – it fills you with complex carbohydrates and necessary vitamins. Spinach is a very good option

5. Milk shakes- they give proteins resulting in a sense of fullness. A skimmed milk version helps in calorie control.

6. Whole meal cereal with milk and cut fruit – It will serve as an ideal breakfast if counter early morning crankiness.

7. Dark Chocolate – it has theobromine. A very small piece should have the effect which means it should give the desired sense of calm and satiety.

8. Tea – it contains caffeine and theophylline (a flavanol similar to theobromine). It’ll temporarily elevate mood and dispel drowsiness.

9. Coffee- caffeine in the coffee increases heart rate resulting in alertness. It is habit forming.

Remember “If hunger is not the problem, then eating is not the solution”

PS: I’m always eager to answer your questions and hear your suggestions. So please bring them to light.

1. Biol Psychiatry. 1998 Nov 1;44(9):851-64. ‘Hypothalamic serotonin in control of eating behavior, meal size, and body weight.’ Leibowitz SF, Alexander JT.


  1. "Avoid dehydrating beverages like colas, black tea, coffee and energy drinks."

    However, you also mention coffee as a mood enhancer which might work for me.

    What should I do then, is it a yes,no or maybe to coffee? Please advise. Thanks.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. @ Green-Thanks for reading up the post in such detail & bringing up a very relevent question.

    When i advice to avoid dehydrating bevergaes, i'm basically focusing on the prevention of mood swings which lead to comfort eating in the first place.

    Coffee does acts as a mood enhancer, but for a limited period of time, after which one might be tempted to reach for another cup and thus,it might lead to formation of a habit.

    Having coffee once in while is harmless.It should not become your daily requirement.

    I hope i have amply answered your query. Please do write back if any other clarification is required.

  4. How misleading commercials can be?
    read up, i'm sure we have indian equivalents (Dairy milk..anyone)