So the summer is almost over and for many, the 'back to the office' blues…
Ever sat in front of the TV eating a tub of ice cream?
Okay, how about a packet of biscuits or giant chocolate bar? Ever devoured an entire cake?
Stuffing our faces with chocolate, cake or sweet snacks is something most of us have done at some point. And millions of us comfort eat to make ourselves feel better.
Those of us who believe chocolate can calm stressful nerves, make you feel happy, or provide a pick me up if you are feeling down are not imagining it.
Studies have shown that chocolate can stimulate your brain to produce the calming chemical dopamine. Not just that but it can increases the level of serotonin – the so-called happy chemical.
Many people reach for sugary, sweet foods if they are feeling depressed. Sometimes in large quantities. One woman was so aware of her propensity for devouring every biscuit, cake and sweet in sight she asked her husband to hide the family chocolate supply from her…he hid it in the teapot!
She had felt greedy emptying the biscuit tin, and even eating the children’s chocolate. But she was doing it out of unhappiness. The snacks made her feel better.
Few comfort eaters are happy with a single square of chocolate. And many, once they start, simply cannot stop until it has all has gone.
There’s a strange logic to this kind of behaviour. Sugary snacks really can induce feelings of pleasure and seemingly calm nerves. Carbohydrates, sugar and chocolate are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid which helps deal with stress, depression and anxiety and which is linked to serotonin production. So it’s of little wonder that when we are feeling low we seek a sugary hit.
In one high-pressure office where it was not uncommon to work until midnight middle-aged professionals calmed their nerves by eating bumper packs of children’s sweets. The management ensured the snack machines were full of them.
But anyone who has sought solace in a food will know that comfort eating, although immediately pleasurable, can have a chronic downside. Sugar highs can be followed by crashing lows. Consuming a huge number of calories can create undesirable health effects such as weight gain, sugar spikes and even diabetes.
Bingeing can also create feelings of guilt, worry about weight gain and even disgust at our own indulgence.
So if bingeing on junk food is making you ultimately unhappy but is an integral stress-management strategy for you, what is the answer?
Ever waited for a box of chocolates to be passed round the room? How did it feel when it arrived on your lap?
Have you ever sat in a restaurant willing the pudding to arrive? Lots of kids have.
Part of the pleasure of choosing a mouth-watering desert from the menu is the anticipation of its arrival. Being given one delicious chocolate from a box can be more pleasurable than eating an entire box of chocolates at home.
Studies have shown that not only eating but looking forward to eating chocolate and cake can produce dopamine, which induces feelings of happiness. The very anticipation of a delicious treat can be pleasurable in itself.
Anticipating eating something delicious may be linked to dopamine’s function, which controls reward function.
You could enhance your own reward mechanism by reducing the amount of comfort food you eat, and eating it to treat yourself.
If there is a goal you are pursuing in your life, such as weight loss, fitness or a change in behaviour, you could use the treat as a reward.
Invest in a small amount of something truly delicious that you would look forward to: a couple of squares of chocolate, a single slice of cake, a packet of sweets to be rationed throughout the week.
Sit down and savour the food slowly, mouthful by mouthful. It’s a treat after all and not something you have everyday.
Many people use food to lift there mood – and there are healthy ways to do this.
A bad diet can feed depression by making us deficient in nutrients vital for brain health.
Nutrients that can help ward off the blues are contained in nuts, fruits, vegetables and high-fibre carbohydrates. Food rich in omega 3 fatty acids such as walnuts, oily fish including salmon or sardines are reported mood-enhancers.
Turkey contains tryptophan, which has been linked to the production of serotonin, the chemical that can create feelings of happiness.
Porridge contains oats, a healthy carbohydrate that can help kick start serotonin production in the brain.
Magnesium has also been reported to be beneficial in warding off depression. It is contained in almonds, avocados, spinach, bananas, probiotic yoghurt and kefir.
And did I mention chocolate? Yes, dark chocolate is a good source of magnesium too. So don’t feel too guilty about having a square…. or two!