Is Food Stressing You Out?
by Barbara Sobel MS, CNS, LDN
We all have stress in our lives. In midlife we may have more than in other times due to the number of demands on us from multiple sources. If you work, you are likely at the crest of your career, with more responsibility than ever. You may be caring for aging parents, and/or still have children at home. While some stress is healthy, chronic stress can cause a myriad of health problems. We can’t remove all of our stress; we can implement strategies that better help us cope and even thrive under stress.
Mention stress reduction and most of us think of lifestyle interventions like meditating, exercising, maintaining relationships, improving sleep, and spending time outside. All of those are important, but what we eat—and how and when we eat—also play a critical role in regulating stress—for the better or worse.
As busy professionals and caretakers, making time to eat a nourishing diet can be difficult. Add in that stress makes us crave foods often low in nutritional value and you have a recipe for a stress-increasing diet. Here are my top five tips for regulating your stress response with food.
1) Eat to Balance Blood Sugar
When we feel stressed, we often reach for comfort or junk foods, which are rich in sugar and fat. While they taste good in the moment, they can lead to sharp spikes in blood sugar. We feel a burst of energy but then a crash leaves us feeling tired, experiencing brain fog, and reaching for more. When we eat sugar and foods that the body quickly turns to sugar, our blood glucose increases. Insulin shuttles this glucose into our cells. Too much glucose and we overwhelm our insulin’s ability to do its job. Even worse, cortisol, one of our stress hormones, pumps even more insulin into our bloodstream. Elevated insulin causes inflammation and weight gain—especially around the belly. Inflammation increases stress, forming a self-reinforcing cycle.
Help stabilize blood sugar by eating a variety of whole foods: lots of vegetables, a serving of protein (animal or plant) at each meal, healthy fats (olive, avocado and coconut oils, nuts and seeds, and their butters), and slow-digesting carbohydrates (starchy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fruits).
Eating regular meals, including breakfast, also helps stabilize blood sugar. Our bodies can interpret skipping or delaying meals as additional stress, and if we are already feeling a lot of stress, this can be too much. Easy breakfast options are oatmeal with almonds and walnuts, eggs with greens, and Greek yogurt with berries.
2) Eat Stress-Reducing Foods
When we are under stress, our bodies use up certain nutrients faster than normal. Add in the stress-induced desire to choose nutrient- low comfort foods over whole foods, and we can easily deplete the nutrients we need most to help reduce stress.
A diet high in fiber (fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains) is associated with lower perceived stress and increased alertness. Similarly, omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish (salmon, trout, her- ring, anchovies, mackerel, and sardines), walnuts, and flaxseeds, reduce inflammation, anxiety, and depression.
B vitamins found in whole grains, vegetables, and animal proteins support a healthy nervous system. Consuming foods high in vitamin C (citrus fruits, red peppers, strawberries) re- duces cortisol and boosts the immune system. Magnesium helps us feel more relaxed. It is found in leafy greens, almonds, yogurt, and salmon. Choosing meals rich in these nutrients helps our bodies better manage stress.
3) Take a Full-Day Perspective
Coffee, tea, and chocolate contain many beneficial phytonutrients and have a place in most of our diets, but all three contain caffeine. Too much caffeine increases blood pressure, anxiety, and interrupts sleep.
A glass of wine can help wipe away the stress of the day. While alcohol can help us fall asleep, it increases blood sugar and leads to disturbed sleep, brain fog, and sluggishness the next day. Try giving up alcohol during the week and notice the difference in sleep and concentration.
It is easy to munch on an energy bar to get us through an afternoon slump or even to replace a meal, but most bars are processed foods, high in sugar, and low in nutritional value. Choose a better bar in Bossa Bars, formulated with just 0-1g of added sugar that comes from dates, and all natural ingredients like almond butter, fiber, and plant protein! Bring along some nuts and a piece of fruit for a snack or meal replacement.
4) Think Ahead
Doing a little bit of meal planning goes a long way in helping us to eat food that is nourishing, stress-reducing, and quick to prepare. Planning out the week’s meals can be as simple as jotting down three dinners on a sticky note. Short on time? Use a grocery delivery or boxed-meal service, buy pre-cut vegetables or shop the salad bar, and batch cook to enjoy leftovers.
5) Eat Slowly and Mindfully
When we eat slowly and mindfully, we pay attention to how our food tastes and how it feels in our body. It affords us some downtime so we can better digest and absorb the nutrients in our food. Slowing down also helps us better assess whether we are still hungry and when we have had enough, and it helps us choose foods that feel good in our bodies.
Step away from the computer and the phone and take 15 or 20 minutes to do nothing but eat. Practice putting your fork down between bites and notice changes in digestion and productivity. Poor nutrition adds to the stress we already place on our bodies. Invest a little time upfront to plan your day. Buy and prepare nutrient-dense food. Make informed decisions. Eat slowly! All of these will help you improve your health and overall wellness. And they will im- prove your ability to respond to stress, reduce stress levels, and prevent food from causing additional stress.
Barbara Sobel, MS, CNS, LDN is a clinical nutritionist specializing in inflammatory conditions, digestive disorders, and hormone balance. She offers personalized nutrition consultations over Zoom You can reach her at 415.587.0510 or email@example.com