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Peaceful, Easy Eating: How Whole Nutrition Can Combat Stress

We know that work, relationships, and lifestyle habits can all play major roles in contributing to our stress levels. But according to nutritionists and physicians, so can our diets. The foods we eat – or don’t eat – can impact our body’s stress response and our ability to cope mentally with difficult events. And, when stress levels are high, essential nutrients can become depleted, making our nutritional choices even more critical. 

 

Skip the Comfort Food

In addition to impacting our body’s nutrient supply, stress can also cause us to reach for more processed, less healthful foods. In many cases, the same foods we should be avoiding as part of a whole, stress-fighting diet. 

While a tough day might spark a craving for ice cream or french fries, think again. These potentially stress-causing foods are better left out of your meal plan:

  • Refined Carbohydrates & Added Sugars
    • A recent study found that when we are stressed, we often crave sugar as it may temporarily decrease the brain’s stress response. However, foods like cookies, sugary sodas, pasta, and white bread can cause a surge in blood sugar levels, leading to spikes in our levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. Regularly consuming these foods can create challenges for the body to properly regulate blood sugar, and cause a continued cycle of stress hormone production. Plus, the highly addictive nature of sugar can cause us to experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety and irritability. If you need a sweet fix, try opting for a naturally sweet treat like antioxidant-packed blueberries instead. 
  • Fried Foods
    • High cortisol levels during stress can cause us to crave fatty, fried foods. While many of us may feel the urge to chow down on mozzarella sticks and french fries when we’re feeling stressed, fried foods (and their associated sugary dipping sauces) have been linked to heightened levels of anxiety and depression. It’s thought that these foods contribute to mood-altering inflammation in the brain, putting frequent fryers at higher risk for mental health struggles. To help curb these cravings, try popping chickpeas in the air fryer for a crispy, protein-packed snack. 
  • Coffee & Energy Drinks
    • While the temporary boost in energy from caffeine and other stimulants may provide extra energy for the moment, they can also increase cortisol production, disrupt the sleep cycle, and cause our bodies to physically mimic symptoms of stress like increased blood pressure and heart rate. If you simply can’t go without a caffeinated beverage in the morning, try reaching for antioxidant-rich green tea instead. Studies have shown that drinking green tea daily can actually lead to a reduction in stress levels due to its high levels of the amino acid theanine
  • Artificial Sweeteners
    • Aspartame and other manufactured sweeteners can cause a spike in cortisol levels and cause imbalances in gut health, making it more difficult to properly absorb nutrients altogether. If a sweetener is a must, try opting for Stevia, which is naturally derived from the Stevia rebaudiana plant. 
  • Industrial Seed Oils
    • Highly processed oils like sunflower, grapeseed, canola, cottonseed, and safflower have been shown to cause an excess of free radicals, harmful molecules in the body, triggering oxidative stress in the brain. Try stocking up on extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, or avocado oil instead. 
  • Alcohol
    • When we’re stressed, having a cocktail to help us unwind and take the edge off might seem like the smart call. But while it may temporarily lift our mood, alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows our central nervous system and basic functions like speech, clear thinking, and the ability to respond in crisis. It also negatively affects the neurotransmitters in our brains, which can lead to a lower mood overall, irritability, and anxiety. This is why hangovers commonly come with hangxiety, the feelings of anxiety, stress, and panic we experience due to the impact of alcohol on our brain. For a relaxing beverage that won’t leave you stressing the next day, try adding a relaxing tincture to your favorite mocktail

And, be sure to take extra care with avoiding any foods you may have sensitivities to, as these can cause physical reactions like digestive distress that will only serve to make matters worse.

 

But Don’t Skip Meals 

Have you ever felt hangry? 

The irritability, fatigue, and confusion we often experience when we’ve gone too long without eating is a result of low glucose levels, or low blood sugar. When our blood sugar is low, we begin to produce more of the stress hormone cortisol, which only exacerbates existing stress and in turn encourages poor food choices. 

Be sure to eat regularly, and opt for satiating, nutritional snacks. Try a handful of almonds with berries, cottage cheese with sunflower seeds, or carrots with hummus.   

 

Reach for These Foods Instead 

Nutritionally balanced meals are key to helping us regulate stress hormones and create enough energy to both manage and relieve stress. It’s important to make sure we’re taking in enough of the crucial nutrients in our diets that help us do so, like magnesium, zinc, calcium, omega-3s, and vitamins B, C, and D. And, we can’t forget to support the ecosystem that helps us to take in our essential nutrients: the gut microbiome. 

  • Healthy Fats
    • Healthy fats like omega-3s, says the Harvard School of Public Health, can help to manage stress by regulating cortisol levels and provide the extra energy needed to cope with difficult events. Foods like avocados, nuts, salmon, cod, and tuna, provide the healthy fats we need while packing an extra punch of stress-fighting calcium and magnesium. 
    • Try adding a delicious garlic butter salmon into your meal plan this month, and serve over savory whole grain couscous
  • Fruits & Berries
    • Fruits containing tryptophan, like pineapple, kiwi, and bananas, support our serotonin levels and help to improve mood and sleep. Citrus fruits and berries, like oranges, grapefruit, and strawberries, deliver the vitamin C we need to regulate the stress response and help to support immunity. Apples are an excellent source of zinc, iron, and vitamins C and E. Adding additional servings of fruit to your daily snacks and meals will also help to add calcium, magnesium, and crucial fibers to your diet.       
    • Try snacking on this fresh cherry berry fruit salad with honey lime dressingBonus: Apples, berries, and cherries also contain quercetin, which can help to relieve seasonal allergies and act as an anti-inflammatory. 
  • Vegetables
    • For a daily dose of vitamins A, B, C, D, and E, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, and zinc, be sure to eat lots of veggies. Leafy greens like spinach and chard, cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower, and snackable produce like bell peppers and snap peas all contain high levels of essential nutrients for managing and relieving stress. Calcium and magnesium work together to diminish the body’s stress response, while essential vitamins B and D help to improve mood and energy levels. 
    • Try serving roasted asparagus and mushrooms alongside your favorite protein and whole grain. Mushrooms are one of the most naturally vitamin D-rich food sources, and asparagus is packed with stress-fighting essential vitamins and minerals. 
  • Protein
    • A protein rich diet can help us feel satisfied so that we avoid craving and snacking on processed and sugary foods. According to MD Anderson, “The hormones and neurotransmitters that make up your body’s stress response are made from the amino acids you get from protein in foods.” Not getting enough protein could make us more susceptible to stress, and potentially lead to blood sugar crashes and irritability. High protein foods like eggs, tofu, chicken, beef, and of course omega-3 rich fish, can help to lift mood, motivation, and concentration, and contain essential stress-reducing minerals like calcium, magnesium, and zinc.  
    • Try whipping up this crock-pot pineapple chicken, served with whole grain brown rice. Bonus: pineapple contains bromelain, an enzyme with anti-inflammatory properties. 
  • Complex Carbohydrates
  • Herbal Teas
    • Regarded for their relaxing properties, herbal teas containing botanicals like chamomile and lavender have been used for thousands of years to aid sleep and ease anxiety. Chamomile contains a flavonoid called apigenin, which works on the same receptors in the brain as some anti-anxiety medications. Compounds in lavender have been shown to stimulate areas of the brain that produce a calming, stress relieving effect. 
    • Try brewing your own blend with local herbs and settle in with a relaxing cup of tea. 
  • Dark Chocolate
    • Staying away from added sugar (great job!), but still need a chocolate fix? Dark chocolate has been shown to not only reduce stress, but to improve memory as well by changing the frequency of brain waves. It’s full of antioxidants, zinc, healthy fats, and fiber, and may even contribute to lowering blood pressure.
    • Try making your own dark chocolate with this easy recipe, and indulge away.     
  • Gut-friendly Foods
    • Fermented foods, like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso contain gut-friendly bacteria that help to balance the gut microbiome for better nutrient absorption. The majority of the body’s serotonin, the “feel good” chemical, is produced in the gut. Serotonin stabilizes our mood, sharpens focus, and helps us to feel calmer and happier. Amino acids, which are key to the production of serotonin, are also plentiful in fermented foods.
    • Try snacking on these miso maple walnuts for a dose of healthy fats, protein, and fermented goodness.  
  • High Fiber
    • Eating plenty of fiber helps us to stabilize our blood sugar, feel full, calm inflammation, and promote lower levels of stress and anxiety by balancing gut health. Foods like beans, seeds, oatmeal, fruits, and vegetables are great sources of both dietary fiber and its powers of cortisol reduction
    • Try this super seed oatmeal for a tasty breakfast full of fiber and protein, and top with berries for added vitamin C.   

Plus, be sure to drink plenty of water. Dehydration, even at mild levels, can play a role in negatively impacting our mood.

 

Nutrition and Stress Relief

Even with the best of intentions and whole nutrition-rich meal plans, we don’t always get the full range of nutrition we need through diet alone. Supplementing our diets with multivitamins, energy support, omega-3 fatty acids, healthy proteins, and probiotics can help to establish and sustain the nutrient foundation and balanced gut we need to steady ourselves during difficult moments and relieve feelings of stress.

We may not be able to avoid stress entirely, but we can cut out the foods that could be causing extra trouble in our brains, bodies, and nervous systems. By prioritizing stress-fighting foods and mood elevating nutrients, we can feel the full benefits of whole nutrition. When we choose foods that nourish our minds and bodies, instead of reaching for only what we crave, a healthier body can lead to a happier life. Here’s to peaceful, easy eating. 

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