Ask a Dietitian: Salt Cravings, Workout Food, and Things to Eat When I’m Stressed

What can I eat other than carbs when I’m stressed?

First, we should talk about why you are stressed! Even though we all know this, it always bears repeating that food will only function like a Band-Aid. If you can, always try to see if you can deal with whatever’s stressing you out more directly: breaking your obligations down into smaller tasks, talking to somebody. Even exercising or taking a bath will probably relax you in a more lasting way than eating a bunch of food and then having to wrench yourself back to whatever it was that was bothering you.

That being said, let’s talk about carbs. I’m definitely not a dietitian who thinks that carbs are in any way bad. We need carbs for brain function and energy, and the instinct to load up on carbs is an evolutionary one because they’re such a quick, efficient source: if a hunter-gatherer came across an abundance of carbs, it would be in her best interest to just get in there and eat them all immediately. So we’re predisposed to have a hard time with portion control when it comes to carbs, and that’s why they get made into villains when they’re not (and they taste really good!).

So I think, if you’re stressed and you really want some carbs, go eat some carbs. Just try to pay attention to what you eat with your carbs and what types of carbs you’re choosing so you’ll end up feeling satiated on less food. Always think about fiber and protein: ideally you’re pairing whole grains with healthy protein sources like low fat cheese, yogurt, turkey, chicken, fish, peanut butter. Then, you can start paying attention to your most frequent cravings and try to come up with healthier alternatives. If you want doughnuts, try to ease yourself toward a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole-wheat bread. If you find yourself craving pizza, have a slice of cheese, some cut-up apple and a handful of whole wheat crackers.

Finally, identify the foods that you really, really want, and just enjoy them, and refuse to beat yourself up over any one incident. If you end up eating a whole container of ice cream, beating yourself up about it will just make you more stressed. Food is supposed to be pleasurable! Just try to build in some avenues for moderation.

Is there something missing in my diet that I am constantly craving salt?

If you’re a high-intensity exerciser (like a marathon runner) or someone who hydrates very excessively (this is pretty rare), you could be craving sodium because your body is over-excreting it. We need it to function: sodium maintains our bodies’ blood volume and blood pressure and helps with muscle and nerve functioning, and low sodium (hyponatremia) can be fatal.

But for most people, it’s really uncommon to have a sodium deficiency. The USDA recommendation is 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day for healthy individuals. That is a single teaspoon! If you eat any sort of processed food at all during the day, you’ll almost surely get enough salt; 80% of the salt we consume daily is from processed foods. Even if you ate only whole foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) and didn’t use any table salt in your cooking, you’d still get salt, because it’s naturally occurring.

Most likely you’ve just developed a taste for it. To keep this from escalating, you could try to wean yourself off slowly and substitute with other flavorings: garlic, onions, lemons, vinegar, hot peppers, herbs. I sometimes recommend Mrs. Dash, which is saltless, to my patients. It’s hard to back away at first because salt tastes great. But your body is also pretty great, and will adjust to new tastes and seasonings over time.

The thing to remember is that salt intake will add up, even if the effects aren’t visible for a long time. Two-thirds of people over age 75 have hypertension, or high blood pressure, which increases the risk of cardiac problems. It can be so tempting to be like, “Who cares, I’m going to eat chips all day long,” but I try to remember that I’d rather stave off my blood pressure problems until I’m 80 instead of getting it at age 32 and having to deal with the repercussions for decades. In a perfect world, we would all have a low-sodium diet, but in reality, most of us have just come to crave it above what our body naturally wants and needs.

How do I balance trying to lose weight, trying to eat less meat and carbs, and also trying to have good workouts—which only seem to happen if I’m eating a lot and also getting a lot of meat and carbs?

You can definitely do this! The key is practicing portion control and choosing nutritional powerhouses so that you’ll have all the fuel you need. Try to prioritize fiber-rich foods, lean protein sources and healthy fats. Whole grains will give you the carb energy you are craving while also providing you with the fiber you need to stay full; if you are looking to eat less meat, vegetarian proteins (soy, legumes, nuts/nut butters, quinoa) can give you the same energy boost with the added benefits of fiber and/or healthy fats. To get more of those healthy fats, foods like avocado, olive oil, salmon, and nuts provide healthy mono and poly-unsaturated fats that taste decadent while also being great for cardiovascular health. And, as recent studies show, adding controlled portions of nuts to your diet can be especially good for weight loss (the power of fiber, protein, and healthy fats all together).

For your weight loss goal in particular, consider keeping a food log for at least a week. What are you really eating? When you try to cut down on animal protein, are you replacing it with vegetable protein or just carby foods? We often feel like we’re being pious only because we’re able to forget the chips we snacked on while watching TV. After a week or so, you can evaluate and see if you can shoot for three meals a day with a couple snacks. You can start looking at how you build your meals: ideally, our plates should be half vegetables, a quarter lean protein and another quarter fiber-rich carbohydrates (check out USDA’s MyPlate for a reference). If you’re getting close to that ratio and you’re fully accounting for everything you eat, you should easily be able to exercise and be on track for healthy weight loss without ever feeling starved.

And a quick little note on protein: We’ve got this thing in America where we’re really fixated on getting a lot of protein, but most of us are already getting enough. It’s good to remember that, in a lot of other countries, meat is considered a side dish and vegetables and starch are front and center. For any given meal, the recommended portion of meat is a piece that can fit snugly in the palm of your hand, which is a pretty damn small piece of meat by American standards. So even if you’re working out a lot, you’re probably getting adequate protein if your diet is varied.

(Of course, there are a few exceptions to all of this, like people who do endurance running and high intensity weight lifting: both of those activities can up your protein requirement by a lot. People who run long distances sometimes end up with mild/benign gastrointestinal bleeding and possible red blood cell destruction from repetitive foot impact; this decreases their iron stores, and the best way to replete those stores is via protein (specifically animal protein, actually, since the body doesn’t absorb vegetarian iron sources as effectively). And body builders are creating so much serious muscle through weight lifting that they need a lot of protein to keep up with that growth. Oh and your period can increase your need for iron, and subsequently protein: hence our cheeseburger cravings during that time of the month.)

Do I need to worry about cholesterol in egg yolks or shrimp if my cholesterol levels are normal?

Egg yolks and shrimp are not the most worrisome foods, all things considered. Yes, for their size, they do yield more cholesterol than other foods, but they also have some other really good things going on. Eggs are pretty low-calorie, rich in vitamin A and D, great protein sources, and of course, they taste amazing. Some eggs now even have omega-3 fatty acids, which are great for your heart. Shrimp are also great low-calorie protein sources, and they’re an excellent source of selenium, an antioxidant that may decrease your risk of developing cancer and also help promote cardiovascular health.

But, okay: when you think about cholesterol, the first important step is to factor in your age and your family history. It’s good to think about where your genetic lottery is going to land you not just now but 10 or 20 years from now, so maybe you’ll want to ask your parents about their cholesterol levels and see if you might be genetically predisposed. Also, recent cholesterol studies are finding that foods that are high in saturated fat, like animal products (meat, dairy, cheese, butter) and processed foods, actually affect bloodstream cholesterol more than high-cholesterol foods. In a way this fits a sort of nutritional common sense: if a person wakes up and eat a cinnamon roll and then goes to work and eats a ham and cheese sandwich, chips, and a Twix for lunch—those items individually are not as high in cholesterol as a two-egg omelet, but it’s not going to be a healthy day.

So this is where the golden rule comes in again: everything in moderation. For anyone with high cholesterol, try to have only a few eggs a week, or on the days you are having an eggs, try to eat more vegetable protein sources instead of animal protein the rest of the day. But eggs are good! I’ve got genetically high cholesterol and I ate two eggs today. I had a cholesterol level of 220 in college, even as a pescatarian, because I was eating lots of pizza, junk food and shit; I’ve lowered it to 180 in the past six years or so just from eating relatively healthily and exercising. And I haven’t really avoided eggs, although sometimes I’ll substitute an egg white for an egg when I make scrambles in the morning.

Oh, and keep in mind that drinking wine can raise your HDL cholesterol level (the “good” type of cholesterol), and exercise does this as well!

Barbara Linhardt is a Registered Dietitian working at a hospital in South Central Michigan.

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