Food and Your Mood (cont.)

The study also uncovered another interesting wrinkle: Rats who build up more abdominal fat -- the rodent equivalent of a spare tire -- also have a lower response to stress. "It's like what your grandma told you: the happy fat man; the mean lean. It's like a folk tale," says Dallman.

She and her colleagues haven't figured out how abdominal fat signals the brain, but they are working on it. In the meantime, she cautions that people should not get carried away by the benefits of a big belly.

"Abdominal obesity is specifically associated with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke," she says. "If you don't exercise it off, you've got big, bad problems."

So don't dive for the doughnuts whenever you're in distress. It's a sure path to weight gain. In fact, according to Thayer, the current epidemic of obesity in the U.S. may stem from stress-induced eating.

"Over the past two decades or so, there's been a steady ramping up of stress and also depression in society, and I think what's happening is that people are trying to self-regulate with food," Thayer says. "I think it is a very likely explanation for the changes in weight and obesity that are being observed nowadays."

Thayer has a much better way to deal with negative emotions: Take a brisk 10-minute walk.

Yes, it's that easy. Thayer says people tend to crave sugary, fatty foods when they are anxious but also low in energy, a state he calls "tense tiredness." This hits most people about 4:30 in the afternoon and again in the evening. Though a sweet snack may temporarily revive you, Thayer's research has shown that a brief bout of moderate exercise is a much more effective and longer-lasting solution.

Unfortunately, most people have a hard time motivating themselves to exercise even at the best of times. When you feel exhausted and stressed, it's even tougher. So Thayer suggests that you start small.

"Don't think about going out and exercising for an hour, but think about getting up and walking down the block -- or ten steps or 100 steps. Once you do that, your body becomes a bit activated, and that in turn makes it easier to go on and do more."

If the weather's nasty, or there isn't a good place to stride outside your home or workplace, climb up and down the stairs, do some jumping jacks, or turn on the radio and dance to a couple of songs (you might want to close your office door).

You can also try stretching exercises, yoga, or meditation because they will help relieve the muscle tension associated with the tense-tired state.

Here are a few more tips for mood-food management:

  • Discover your own daily energy and tension cycle. During three typical days, write down your energy level and tension level once an hour. Use a 7-point scale for each measure (1=least; 7=most). Chart the results.
  • Beware of your tense-tired times. Note the hours when your anxiety is highest and your energy lowest. Avoid food temptations and big decisions during these times. Try a brisk walk instead.
  • Use your best moods to advantage. Schedule challenging activities for the hours when you feel most revved and least stressed (mid-morning for many people).
  • Snack well. Avoid the sugary, fatty stuff, but if you're really hungry, munch on fresh fruits, veggies, yogurt, nuts, low-fat cheeses, or other healthy options.
  • Eat breakfast. Studies show that eating a morning meal improves mood and memory and increases energy. Also, people who regularly eat breakfast are less likely to become obese.
  • Finally, don't let your bad moods get you down. They will pass.

Thayer explains: "If you think about a personal problem late at night when your energy is low and your tension is high, it seems horrendous. But the same problem considered the next morning may seem like nothing at all."

Originally published Oct. 17, 2003
Medically updated Sept. 1, 2004

SOURCES: Stevens, B. Acta Paediatrica, August 1997; vol 86: pp 837-842. Zmarty, S.A. Physiology of Behaviour, July 1999; vol 62: pp 185-191. Christensen, L. Nutrition, June 1997; vol 13: pp 503-514. Dallman, M.F. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sept. 30, 2003; vol 100: pp 11696-11701. Lombard, C.B. Medical Journal of Australia, Nov. 6, 2000; vol 173 Suppl: pp S104-S105. Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food and Exercise, by Robert E. Thayer, Oxford University Press, 2001. Robert E. Thayer, PhD, professor of psychology, California State University, Long Beach. Larry Christensen, PhD, chairman, department of psychology, University of South Alabama. Mary F. Dallman, PhD, professor of physiology, University of California, San Francisco. WebMD News: "Stress Feeds the Need for Comfort Food," by Jennifer Warner, Sept. 9. 2003. WebMD News: "Breakfast Reduces Diabetes, Heart Disease," by Sid Kirchheimer, March 6, 2003.

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