Coping with Stress the Natural Way

Debunking myths about carbohydrates.

Posted Jun 26, 2019

“I have no problem controlling my eating during the day, but as soon as I get home from work, I can’t control myself. I help out with the kids, but they are young, 2 and 4, and constantly demanding attention, or the two year-old is having a tantrum. Even before my coat is off I feel my tension rising, so I look for something to snack on. I realize that I am eating almost constantly until dinner, and then I sit at the table still feeling the need to shovel food into my mouth.”

My new client, let’s call him Al, was in his mid-fifties, married with young children, and apparently not coping well with the chaos (his word) generated by his kids. He gained 40 pounds in the last two years and was still gaining.

“Should I go on a keto diet?” he asked. ”That will solve my stress eating because I won’t be able to eat carbohydrates when I get upset.”

If only it were that simple.

The keto, or ketogenic, diet is designed to stop the body from using carbohydrates for energy, as it would normally do. By severely limiting or, if followed correctly, eliminating carbohydrate intake, the body runs out of carbohydrate and, in a state called ketosis, mobilizes fat for energy. Any carbohydrate consumed will throw the body out of ketosis, so it is important that the dieter be meticulous about avoiding this nutrient.  If Al went on a keto diet, then of course he could not turn to carbohydrates to help him to cope with the chaos generated by his children. He might lose weight but when his kids, or anything else, cause him to become tense and impatient, would he be able to calm himself?

Carbohydrates have a dual role in our body: They are a source of energy, and many, like grains, potatoes, and rice, contain important vitamins and fiber. But they also have another function: When they are consumed, certain physiological events occur that result in the production of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin. As many people know by now, serotonin maintains our emotional stability, and restores a sense of calm when our mood is jolted by various stresses. Serotonin also brings about a sense of fullness, i.e., satiety.

The body can switch from using carbohydrates to using fat for energy, albeit with some delay and side effects. However, if the body is on a ketogenic diet, the brain cannot obtain tryptophan, the amino acid it needs to make serotonin. Tryptophan enters the brain only after carbohydrates are eaten. Protein prevents this from occurring. Nature gave us the means of coping with stress by eating carbohydrates; the keto diet takes it away.

To be sure, if Al were an ideal parent in an ideal world with ideal children, then dinner would resemble those depicted on the television series “Downton Abbey,” in which a hushed restrained aura characterized the restrained eating of the diners. (Of course, on that program, the children were up in a nursery eating dinner with their governess). Or, if he and his wife were able to execute the many strategies in the many child-rearing books on avoiding dinner-bedtime struggles, his stress levels would be similar to that of a 100-year-old tortoise.

Since these scenarios were unlikely, Al had a choice: Go on a keto diet and find other ways of dealing with stress — meditation perhaps? — or eat a prescribed amount of carbohydrate snack to increase serotonin. He decided to try eating a prescribed amount of carbohydrate about 30 minutes before entering the late afternoon stress zone. By doing this, his serotonin levels would rise, producing a sense of calmness and ability to cope. He would not be allowed to continue snacking; one dose of carbohydrates was enough.

The snack had to contain about 25-30 grams of carbohydrate, preferably starchy carbs with no more than 1 or 2 grams of fat and protein. Pretzels, rice crackers, matzo, instant oatmeal, English muffins, and most breakfast cereals were some snacks that I suggested he try. I told him to check food labels to make sure he was eating enough, but no more than enough, carbohydrate.

I also explained that he would find himself less hungry when starting to eat supper because the serotonin would decrease his appetite before he started to eat. The calories in the snack, around 125 or so, would not prevent his weight loss since he was eating only one snack and then smaller portions at dinner.

We talked about when he should have the snack. It was important that he have some quiet time to eat it and allow it to work. It takes about 20 minutes or so for the serotonin effect to be felt, so having the snack as he walked into the house was not a good idea. As the brain calmed from more serotonin, it was also important that the mind and emotions calm as well.

He decided to eat a snack at work before leaving for home, a 20-minute walk away.

“It worked,” he told me when I next saw him. “I didn’t think it would, but I was much more relaxed when I arrived home. And I really did eat less at dinner. But isn’t it wrong to give in to my emotions and eat? I almost feel guilty at feeling better.”

“Giving into one’s emotions by overeating should be avoided,” I told him, “because it can make the person feel that his or her eating is out of control. And, of course, this usually results in weight gain. But self-medicating with a small amount of carbohydrate is not giving into your emotions. It is eating as nature intended you to eat to make your life a little calmer."