When a vegan gets stressed, as all people do from time to time, it is easy to not eat. When we’re stressed, the healthy foods we tend to eat can lose some of their appeal. This is especially common among folks who are newer to the vegan lifestyle. Who wants to eat kale when the boss just chewed you out? When fixing the car is going to cost $300 you don’t have? When it’s just been a wack week?
Sometimes knowledge of the health value of the food isn’t enough to offset the stress that we’re going through. But we can’t just not eat. The only two possible outcomes of not eating are either ill-health or ceasing to be a vegan. So not eating is not an option.
The truth is, integrating veganism into your life—such that it fits holistically into your lifestyle instead of remaining kind of obtrusive—takes time. Maybe there are some of us who love to eat kale or whatnot when we’re stressed, or who have better outlets altogether when we’re stressed (which should be a goal for overall health in general).But for a lot of us, that’s just not the case. When the body is stressed, it often seeks “comfort foods,” which tend to be highly processed and contain unhealthy fats and sugars.
Why We Crave Junk Food When We’re Stressed
There is nothing intrinsically bad or even surprising about wanting to snack on these foods. If you’re really stressed out, you may not want to prepare a full meal from fresh ingredients, nor will one boring item scratch that itch. Processed food is simply easier to prepare and eat. It makes sense.
Additionally, though we have been encouraged in commercials to say, “Hungry? Why wait? Grab a [piece of nutritionally deficient mass-market garbage that barely counts as food],” there is also a pretty deep biological basis for craving salt, fat, and sugar while stressed, and the snack food market very effectively exploits that basis.
A stressful feeling is the body’s natural reaction to a challenging situation, and its natural urge is to store fat and electrolytes (of which sodium is one) in order to have sources of stored energy to draw on quickly.
It may also seek a quick burst of energy, to be ready to fight off a sabretooth tiger if need be, or at least run from one. And what can give us a quick burst of energy, because it is quickly absorbed to feed the cells? Sugar, specifically glucose (although most mass market products contain crap sugars like HFCS that aren’t quickly absorbed). So the desire to mainline a bag of sugary or high-fat yummies makes a lot of sense.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, our confused society tells us to eat garbage when we feel stressed, making us feel worse ultimately. Couple that with this outdated fight-or-flight instinct, and the result is a recipe for failure.
Idealism vs. Practicality
Now ideally, it would be better if we never sought out unhealthy food at all to help us deal with stress. Holism of lifestyle is not an easy thing to attain, and this level of clarity, calm, and self-awareness is something we should aspire to, and/or that those who are financially and temporally unimpeded may very well occupy now.
But for many of us, it’s not practical. Still, I’m pretty sure even the most entrenched vegan purists among us would agree that it is better to eat something vegan that’s maybe not 100% healthy or unprocessed than to give up on veganism entirely. Right? Work with me here.
Therefore, it’s important to identify some comfort foods that can get you through those sticky times. To avoid overeating, it helps to seek out foods that are nutrient-dense, which are more filling and can represent a net benefit to your nutrition, while still being tasty as hell.
As a fitness professional, I give you my little list of vegan rescue foods:
Sesame sticks: Antioxidants, (mostly) healthy fats, protein, and depending what you brand you buy, whole grains, which means fiber. Beats Lay’s, doesn’t it?
Dark Chocolate: The antioxidant content helps to relieve the stress, and it’s hard to eat a whole lot of 90% Cacao. If you slow down, take a breather, and let yourself savor the flavor, that can help a lot with stress. Crunch a little up and let it melt on your tongue. That’s the best.
Pistachios: I use pistachios as a central component in my diet for their nutritional value, since they are rich in zinc and lysine and contain a good amount of antioxidants and healthy fats. Also, these little salties provide just enough “assembly required” to help you work through that stress a little bit.
Fried Fava Beans: these are protein-rich and a little salty, and they crunch rulll nice. Drink plenty of water.
Rice Ice Cream: It’s basically ice cream. It has some healthy benefits over regular ice cream, like fiber, but mostly it’s comprised of fat, sugar, and empty calories. Buy it once in a while and don’t eat it from the carton. That’s all I can say.
Processed Meat Replacement Products: I know, I know. A lot of these are not great for you or the environment and some of the companies that make them are questionable at best. Well, I try to keep it to once a week, and I avoid brands I don’t approve of. Simple. (I use an app called Buycott to help me stay informed).
Also, I regularly change up my meat substitutes. Sometimes I’ll do chickpea burgers, soy dogs, Quorn vegan burgers, or seitan something-or-others. It just helps to have them handy. A hell of a lot better for my stress and my life in general to eat them than to miss dinner.
Big Bowl of Fruit: Sometimes just the act of chopping up all that yummy pineapple, mango, melon, strawberries, et cetera and putting it in a bowl, all nice and pretty and sweet and alluring, helps me begin to stave off the stress. Just that little amount of preparation, and the building anticipation, has an enormous benefit. Keep some frozen for when you run out of fresh, and make a sweet smoothie instead. Just enough process, and more than enough sweetness.
My experiences and my associations are obviously somewhat to particular to me. You’ll develop your own list of foods that make you feel cozy when things are getting you down, while still letting you fulfill the ethical tendency that drew you to veganism in the first place.