What should I do when I’m stressed and crave sugary and salty junk food?

Before answering the question, it's important to talk about stress. Stress is a response triggered by a perceived threat, and that stress response continues until the threat is gone. The stress response gears the body up for a physical response (i.e. fight or flee). The stress response increases muscle tension, heart rate, blood pressure, and diverts blood flow from your stomach to your skeletal muscles to prepare for fighting or fleeing.

Emotional stress triggers the same stress response in the body. Sugary foods can temporarily make us feel good by increasing the levels of brain serotonin. However, this good feeling doesn't last long and eating more sugary snacks may be needed until your perception of the emotional stress is gone. This continued cycle of managing emotional stress with sugary foods can be unhealthy and lead to unwanted weight gain.

Since a the stress response gears the body up for a physical response, the best thing to do when stressed is to engage in physical activity. Physical activity is not only good at managing stress, but it also has a positive effect on your mood. Physical activity is effective for the following reasons:

1. Physical activity takes your mind off of the emotional stressor, which stops the stress response
2. Physical activity increases levels of endorphins, which improves mood
3. Physical activity can help reduce muscle tension
4. Physical activity can help manage weight

However if you do need to snack on something sweet, a piece of dark chocolate (40grams) is better choice because it contains healthy antioxidants and contains nutrients that can lower stress hormones.
Jacob Teitelbaum
Integrative Medicine
Rather than reaching for cookies or donuts, eat a few squares of antioxidant-rich dark chocolate instead (skip the milk and white varieties). Savor every bite and you won’t need more. If you need a “sugar fix,” turn to whole fruit with a low glycemic index rating. Avoid sugar-packed fruit juices and drinks.
Beat Sugar Addiction Now!: The Cutting-Edge Program That Cures Your Type of Sugar Addiction and Puts You on the Road to Feeling Great - and Losing Weight!

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Beat Sugar Addiction Now!: The Cutting-Edge Program That Cures Your Type of Sugar Addiction and Puts You on the Road to Feeling Great - and Losing Weight!

The No-Fail Plan to Beating Sugar Addiction! With one-third of our calories coming from sugar and white flour added to processed foods, sugar addiction is a rapidly growing epidemic. However, unlike...
A classic food craving. Go ahead satisfy it. Try to be at least aware of the amount of calories it took to satisfy your craving and move on. Now start paying attention to how long you can go without getting your next craving for sugary and/or salty foods and start using some of the other advice here to make some substitutions.

Now maybe you can fight off the craving sometimes and shift your palate to the healthier choices gradually. Start telling yourself how much you enjoy the fruit, nuts, seeds, cheese, yogurt, raw veggies, whole grains, eggs, lean meats and the many other choices you could make.

You crave the food but you probably crave the comfort more. Pay attention to how you feel after over satisfying a craving and attach some negativity to it. It’s a gradual process just try to use a little awareness in regards to your triggers and put yourself in situations that increase your chances of a successful day.

Then get up and do the same thing tomorrow.
Doreen Rodo
Nutrition & Dietetics

When you are craving something sweet, provided that you do not have any diet restrictions such as diabetes, try raisins or other dried fruit, a small piece of dark chocolate or a cup of flavored tea with honey. If you want something salty-portion out a serving of Sun Chips, baked chips or baked Tostitos and have with salsa or hummus. Stick to one serving and then have a cup of tea or a healthy cold beverage.

Well I say when you are stressed or craving things become active. When you are active you less likely to snack on things that you should not eat. Snacking on junk food when you are stressed or bored is a learned behavior so you need to change your learned behaviors.

When you are stressed or cravings things start to trigger those thoughts with activity. If you learn to be active when you are stressed or have cravings sooner or later it will be as natural to be active as it is to reach for food.

Other techniques that I have found to be successful is to drink as much water as possible. If you are craving but yet you know you should not eat simply drink water. This will calm the craving and give your mouth that oral fixation.

Finally creating positive affirmations is very powerful. These affirmations can be limitless but anything that elevates who you are and how you do not need the food you are craving can help. Use all 3, change you learned behaviors and look at the results, these things are practical, realistic and healthy for your brain and mind.
Cindy Gay
Nutrition & Dietetics
In place of chips, try roasted (unsalted) sunflower seeds, roasted almonds or walnuts. Measure 1/4 cup and eat that amount rather than eating out of the package. 

For a sweet tooth, try natural peanut butter on 2 graham crackers. Lite yogurt or Greek Yogurt might also satisfy a sweet tooth.
Paula Greer
Midwifery Nursing

Eating when you are stressed is a learned behavior and a negative coping mechanism. As a previous stress eater I have learned to eat 5-6 times a day to keep my hunger hormones at bay and to eat a variety of foods that prevent all the cravings. Having dark chocolate and dried fruit as well as healthy baked goods prevent me from craving sweets. Having nuts, popcorn and even whole-wheat pretzels satisfy my crunchy but no longer salt craving eating habits. As you detox from all the fat, salt and sugar your taste buds will change and you will no longer crave the bad foods that you have in the past. I now take a walk when I am stressed or try to substitute healthier choices then depending on food to make me feel better. Walking releases endorphins that can make you feel better and give you none of the guilt.

Robert DeVito
Managing food cravings is a simple but difficult process. In my experience, I have seen that when an individual makes an emotional judgment and gives into eating when they are not hungry it is often due to temporarily losing sight of their goal(s) and/or continuation of habits.

First, understand that there are physical needs during stressful times. Your body is burning sugar and your cravings are present so you will replace immediate energy stores. Also know that an Apple is a better choice than junk.

Second, understand your role in the habits and choices that you have created. You MUST own your choices and your result. Look past your immediate desire and play out in your mind how you will feel while eating this “much needed" food. Play out the after effects. How do you feel once you've finished? 

A few "rules" I have my clients to focus on is:

Become Mindful
Before you begin to feel stressed is the best time to focus on how you are handling your day. Monitor your stress levels. If you are becoming "STRESSED!!!" it is time to take a break, contemplate your thoughts and actions and choose your next action. This 2-3 minute reset of thinking and breathing acts to calm you and allows you to retain focus.

Remember: staying in the stressful situation will INCREASE your stress. You must change your thinking and your actions right there.

Control your kitchen
Keep temptation out of sight. Clean the area of "junk" and create a scenario where you have to go purchase the items you want so badly. This will act to slow down your reactions. Choose fruits and vegetables first while you focus on breathing.

Know WHY you are eating what you are eating
Say it out loud -- "I am eating due to stress, not hunger."

Own the fact that you need to control your stress differently to create a long-term change.

Try these tips for controlling food cravings:
  1. Develop a mantra. Something like: "I feed my body and my needs, not my taste buds."  
  2. Ask yourself questions: "Why am I going to eat this?  Is it because I actually want it and need it or am I re-actively responding to an immediate desire?"
  3. Keep focused on your goal. Post it in sight and refer to it often.
  4. Drink a glass of water to slow the decision making process down. Water can make you feel a little fuller AND it will give you something to do while deciding if you are actually going to give in to your cravings.
To your health,
Robert DeVito
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Not only is food powerful medicine that can heal the body, it can also accelerate your metabolism. But here’s the key: The food you choose must be dictated by your own unique metabolism. Groundbreaking research shows that just as you’re born with a specific blood or body type, you’re also blessed with a specific metabolic type. This means the same foods that keep you looking trim and beautiful could make someone else gain weight and look puffy or tired.

There are three general metabolic types: A, B, and C. Each requires a unique meal breakdown based on different amounts of protein, fats, and carbs. Of course, all of these should include an array of colorful fruits and vegetables.

If you like both sweet and salty foods equally, you’re probably a Type C. Type Cs are mixed types who have fluctuating appetites; can experience fatigue, anxiety, and nervousness; may suffer aches and pains; and have little trouble with weight control.

How to Eat: Type Cs have the ability to metabolize proteins, fats, and carbs equally, which is why you crave both salty and sweet foods. Your mealtime plate should be divided into thirds:
  • 33% protein
  • 33% fats
  • 33% carbs
As a Type C, you’re allowed to put the most fats on your plate. Choose a mixture of low- and full-fat foods such as low fat cheese, yogurt, olive oil, etc.

Mix and match dark and light proteins as well: light and dark meat poultry, beef, salmon, cod, kidney beans, soy, etc.

The last portion of your plate should contain good carbs, including various whole grains and healthy starchy vegetables: 100% whole-wheat breads and cereals, sweet potatoes, bananas, etc.
Marjorie Nolan Cohn
Nutrition & Dietetics
If you crave sweet and salty foods but are concerned about how it may affect your health now that you can easily substitute herbs, spices, and natural sweets in fruit and still maintain a very healthy diet.

You can replace salt by trying herbs that include bay leaves, basil, mint, dill or rosemary. Spices are dried parts of a vegetative substance, such as roots, seeds or barks. Try cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, tarragon or pepper.

You can substitute sugar with agave nectar, honey, ripe fruits and all natural preserves.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.