Sugar cravings are a battle throughout the year, but managing them gets really hard during the holidays. The reason? Stress. Add up the pressures of college exams, work deadlines, holiday shopping (i.e., crowds), and getting out to exercise despite the cold, dreary weather, and a season for cheer can quickly become a season for sheer panic.
If you’re craving cakes, cookies, pies, candy and holiday lattes more than usual, chances are stress is the culprit. And high-calorie goodies can actually block your awareness of stress, especially if you’re what psychologists call a “pleasure eater” (see below).
Before we can understand how to navigate this gooey, sugary calorie minefield, I think it helps to understand why stress causes food cravings in the first place. If we can lower our stress, we at least have a fighting chance of defending ourselves against the sugar buffet that has become synonymous with December.
Stress has been shown to influence the neurotransmitters and hormones that control our appetite. In some cases, stress can lower appetite, but prolonged stress heightens it.
Prolonged stress heightens sugar cravings in particular. Why? According to Harvard Medical School, the hormones that are unleashed by stress (cortisol and ghrelin) seem to affect our food preference, steering us toward high-fat, sugary foods.
Things get worse if you’re a “pleasure eater,” someone who gets above-average pleasure from eating and enjoys high-sugar, high-fat foods. This neurological phenomenon is real, and it’s been observed in the brain activity of people who struggle with eating and weight. Personally, I am a lifetime member of this camp.
Thus, as the sweets begin to swirl around from well-meaning and extremely talented baker friends and family, the best we can do is try to lower feelings of stress this month. Here are three ways to do it…
1. Use healthy mood-boosting foods
The amino-acid ‘tryptophan’ is known to reduce feelings of stress. Turkey, anyone? (Actually there are tons of foods that contain tryptophan, including spinach, so green smoothie anyone?) Vitamin C, magnesium and calcium are also known stress-relievers. Why we don’t crave THESE when we’re feeling frazzled is beyond me, but gobbling them can certainly help. Smoothies are a great way to load up on mood-boosting nutrients, and we just so happen to have a free recipe book.
2. Brush up on brain training
Sugar requires a premeditated game plan sometimes. Cravings can be extremely hard to thwart because sugar is addictive and because it’s a contributor to toxic brain, which can send you further down the rabbit hole. David created a program specifically designed to train the mind to reduce sugar consumption and to reinforce habits like drinking more water, which helps with cravings.
3. Keep perspective
My aunt told me a quote this morning that seemed very pertinent to holiday stress: “Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change.” When I really think about it, shopping and decorating and parties—even work and school and money—should not put one at a stress level of 10. Looking at the big picture, these are more worthy of a stress level of around 2.
One of the best ways to counteract stress is to consider the power of gratitude.
How do you handle stress and cravings this time of year?