The Right Way to Eat Your Feelings, According to a Nutritionist

Updated 08/07/17
Emotional Eating
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I’ve been on bit of a health-kick lately: In addition to weekly cardio sessions and exploring my phone’s built-in health app—which had previously been relegated to a folder within a folder on my fifth home screen—this means that I’ve changed my Twizzlers-and-champagne-for-dinner ways and committed to cooking for myself. Thanks to the internet’s surplus of fun, interesting, and nutritious recipes, it’s actually been kind of fun to explore new cuisines while improving my diet.

That being said, over the past few weeks, I’ve occasionally run into an unexpected, though, in retrospect, totally obvious, hitch: Sometimes, I just don’t feel like eating well. I know, I know: nobody constantly craves superfood smoothies. Our desire for fat and sugar is literally woven into our DNA. Most of the time, I can push through my reticence and even garner enthusiasm for the meal I’ve planned, but realistically, I have to admit that I’m not always totally gung-ho about prepping or eating a Buddha bowl. If I’m hungover, PMS-y, or simply feeling exhausted or sad, Postmates-ing a pizza seems more manageable (and satisfying) than slogging through an hour of cooking and a heap of dishes, only to end up with a plate of vegetables. I mean, there’s a reason they call our favorite guilty pleasures “comfort food.”

In an effort to satisfy my emotional cravings and be kind to myself without totally sabotaging my diet, I turned to NYC-based nutritionist Dana James. When it comes to how our feelings affect our food choices, James says, “It’s less about our mood but more to do with the chemistry behind the mood. When we're stressed and have elevated cortisol levels, we tend to gravitate toward more  sweet/fat food combinations (aka comfort food). When our adrenaline is supercharged we tend not to want to eat and feel nauseous instead!” James adds that it is possible to make meals that are both foolproof and filling, and most importantly, that make you feel good while you’re eating and hours later. Keep scrolling for James’s tips on the easiest, tastiest ways to eat well and satisfy your comfort cravings.

When You're Sad

What you’re craving: Whether you’re going through work burnout, a breakup, or simply a bout of the blues, James notes that a bad mood can cause many of us to binge. “Depression can either lead to no appetite, or a ravenous appetite where we numb ourselves with food to blot out the uncomfortable emotions,” she says, adding, “The latter may also have to do with lower serotonin levels and the quickest way (but not the most effective way) to increase serotonin is to eat sweet food!” 

What to eat instead: For a sweet treat that won’t let you crash and burn later, “Make your own cacao truffles with cacao, almonds, hemp seeds, and dates,” says James. We can’t gush enough about hemp seeds’ myriad virtues, and almonds pack a double-punch of protein and healthy fats that will keep you fuller longer than a candy bar. James adds that supplements can also help boost our moods without resorting to a sugar rush: “Try the supplement 5-HTP, which is the precursor to serotonin,” she says. “I recommend taking 50 mg before bed for a deeper level of sleep as well as a mood boost.”

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When You Have PMS

What you’re craving: As with stress and sadness, PMS pushes us toward the dessert menu: “The higher levels of progesterone increase our desire for sweet food,” notes James. In fact, an article in Psychology Today reveals that PMS and chocolate are such a common combination that doctors of yore erroneously believed that chocolate caused PMS. 

What to eat instead: James suggests curbing sugar cravings with satisfying but less sweet starch-heavy veggies: “Add more starchy carbs to your meals during this time to help abate the sugar cravings. For dinner have a frittata with potato and a green salad loaded with pumpkin seeds and avocado.” If you’re too crampy to bake a frittata—I’ve been there too!—consider the humble pre-baked rotisserie chicken: “Try a roasted root vegetable salad with rotisserie chicken or wok-tossed vegetables with organic chicken and brown rice.”

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When You're Hungover

What you’re craving: “When we’re hungover, we have generally slept for fewer hours and that leads to carb cravings,” says James. Factor in dehydration and rapid changes in blood sugar, and it’s no wonder we’re not in the mood to cook up a balanced breakfast after a raucous night. James adds, “There’s a reason you want the pancakes and not the omelet the next day. It’s not you; it’s the body’s hormones!”

What to eat instead: When it comes to hangover recovery, coconut water has always been my personal go-to, so I was surprised when James recommended another potassium-rich option I’d never considered: “Cucumber juice is phenomenal! It’s incredibly rich in potassium as well as other hydrating nutrients to help decrease a hangover fast!” If you’re still feeling a little worse for wear, adds James, “Take a B vitamin too, as it helps to clear out the acetaldehyde, a toxic metabolite from alcohol.”

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