If you are stressed out, often the first things to go slack is our diet plan. It falls to the wayside and the last thing you want to worry about is what to eat when the pressures of daily life are building. If you are like most people, comfort foods begin to call your name.
You know, the ones Mom used to make, like creamy macaroni and cheese, warm brownies, and tasty fried chicken. We crave these foods because our minds have attached sensory memories to these experiences. These foods can remind us of better times and comfort us when we are low.
While it may taste great going down, it can really increase the stress you experience down the road. If you tweak the foods you choose when you are stressed, you can actually lower your stress levels by eating.
Here’s how that works. The chemicals released during stress, like cortisol and adrenaline (the fight or flight neurotransmitter) cause you to crave certain fatty, salty, and sometimes sweet foods. If you have high levels of anxiety and stress, often cortisol levels stay elevated through the day and sometimes through the night. This constant cortisol exposure causes a whole host of health problems like weight gain, inflammation, and depresses your immune system. Not to mention a cortisol spike can really stimulate your appetite.
When your diet is stressing you out, or if you are becoming obsessed because you feel as if you are living from one meal to the next, the effect of stress will be heightened. Focusing too much on what you are eating can cause more stress, and you can fall into a pattern of fighting cravings and battling guilt. This never pans out well, so try these suggestions to help defeat your cravings, de-stress, and boost your serotonin levels, which are the feel good chemicals released in the brain.
Plan for stressful situations by keeping around foods like cantaloupe, bananas, watermelon, and turkey, which contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid that your body uses to build those feel good chemicals. It can also help relax tense muscles. Almonds can help strengthen your immune system and this helps the body fight the damage done by stress. Physically crunching on a nut may also help relieve anxiety and worry.
Chewing gum can help too. When you chew, the temporal lobe of the brain gets washed in a flood of messengers that help you de-stress. Anxiety wanes with each bite.
Toss aside foods that are high in sugar, and calm that sweet tooth with berries and fruits. Your body will respond to this type of sugar much better than the sugar in a doughnut or pastry. If you eat processed sugar, especially in the morning, you run the risk of starting an imbalance in the chemicals in your brain, and you may have a slight case of ‘dulled brain.’
If you have extra salt with your extra stress, this can pack a terrible punch on your blood pressure, especially if you are prone to high blood pressure. Try experimenting with spices, dried herbs, fresh herbs, and salt substitutes. Skip those foods that invite tons of salt, like baked potatoes or French fries. If that cheeseburger just won’t stop calling your name, try a ground turkey burger, and pull off half the bun. Or make one at home, and use a whole-grain bun with some lowfat cheese melted on top of lean ground chicken or turkey.
If you are missing potato chips, try crispy apple slices, pistachios, or baby carrots. The crunchy factor helps calm you down, and they take a little longer to eat. These foods are more nutrient dense, which means you have fewer calories packing higher nutrition, and they contain antioxidants and vitamins which help decrease inflammation caused by stress.
Don’t forget high quality protein during those hassling times. This is going to be your best fighter against hunger and stops damage to muscles. The body uses cortisol to draw amino acids and energy out from your muscle tissue, and this can really slow your metabolism over the long haul. For powerful protein, choose a bean burrito to bust your stress, or a hot bowl of chili or soup that has lots of veggies. Season it with herbs like cumin, chili powder, and curry so you can have lots of flavor without all the salt.
Try on eggs as a hunger satisfying, stress-soothing food. You can make a crustless quiche, or an omelet with veggies and then roll it into a whole grain tortilla with some salsa for spice. You’ll be surprised how this can fill you up and reduce your stress-related hunger.