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What Works Better for Stress: Fat or Carbohydrate?

A new weight-loss client of mine (let’s call her Susan) was explaining why she had gained almost eighty pounds over the past eighteen months. The death of a parent had led to chronic problems with her siblings over the disposition of the mother’s home and possessions. As she explained to me, she felt angry much of the time and found that eating helped soothe this uncomfortable emotion. The foods she selected were very high in fat: fried chicken, french fries, bagels heaped with cream cheese, salads heavy with mayonnaise, baked potatoes with gobs of butter. “When I realized that I was going to lose my fight with my siblings, I just couldn’t bear thinking about it. Eating lots of fat made me tired enough so I could retreat to my bed and go to sleep. It was a way of escaping from a really bad situation.”

It is difficult to find studies that affirm Susan’s experience but anecdotal evidence is robust. Large quantities of fatty foods produce a lethargy and fatigue that some have described as “being drunk on food” or being in an “emotional coma.” One consequence of feeling this way is that the eater feels incapable of dealing with the problems caused by the stressful situation. In some cases, where there really is no way of making things better, the escape offered by the fatty foods is quite compelling. 

Carbohydrate consumption produces a different sort of emotional effect. Many research studies have shown that because the brain chemical serotonin is increased after carbohydrates are eaten, a general improvement in mood results. Anger, anxiety, irritability, confusion, and fatigue decrease and energy, vigor, and hopefulness increase. The stressed individual who eats carbohydrate is less likely to try to escape her problems and more likely to try to cope with them.

In my experience with weight-loss clients, many switch from the fatty foods to carbohydrates when they realize that they are going to have to deal with the problems presented by the stressful situation. Many years ago, I had a client whose husband had a terminal illness and was given a very short time to live. She told me that she deliberately ate large quantities of fat in order to knock herself out after visits to the hospital. She came to see me several weeks after her husband died because, as she told me, “I have to make all sorts of decisions now and I can’t think clearly when I eat so much fat. What can I eat that will keep me calm but not interfere with my thinking?” She responded to eating therapeutic amounts of carbohydrate, especially in the afternoon and evening when her loneliness and grief threaten to overwhelm her.  

The problem with using fatty foods as a way of avoiding difficult problems is that, like going on an alcoholic binge, the relief is short lived and has side effects. The health consequences from a diet of fried everything may last much longer than the problems caused by the stressful situation. (Susan still has not solved her conflicts with her siblings and now is dealing with the need to lose those eighty pounds.) Carbohydrates are not only healthier; they do not leave the eater with potential medical problems and, if chosen wisely, supply a variety of vitamins, minerals, and fiber to the diet. But they do not act as an edible anesthetic. The stressed eater is still aware of the problems that triggered the eating.

Perhaps the answer to what should be eaten when stress arrives is this: Eat carbohydrates (but not fruit as it does not lead to serotonin production) and seek emotional support from your family, friends or health care providers. Stress is hard to bear alone but the solution is not to curl up with a bag of potato chips for company. Recognize your need for emotional help if you see yourself turning to fats as a way of turning off your stress. There is sure to be someone who can offer more comfort and help than a candy bar does.