Eat to beat stress

Reducing stress with a healthy diet

A racing car cannot give its best on low quality fuel, and you cannot give your best living off a poor diet. If you drink coffee to keep going, eat more than you need for comfort, miss out on breakfast, rely on convenience foods or take-aways, you need to make changes to your eating habits.

When you are under stress, your body becomes more prone to digestive problems and your nervous system and adrenal glands work on overdrive, using up more nutrients than normal. Furthermore, when you are under pressure, healthy eating is likely to be low on your priority list, further depleting the body of essential vitamins and minerals.

It is possible, however, to counteract a good deal of the unwanted, negative effects of stress with a healthy balanced diet.

Your plan for a healthy diet

1. Eat little and often
Eat healthy regular meals and snacks throughout the day. This will help to keep your blood sugar levels steady and sustain your energy. Eating a good breakfast will keep you going throughout the morning and provide your body with vital mineral resources right from the beginning of the day.

2. Eat more fibre
A high-fibre diet will help to keep you healthy and may help to reduce cholesterol. Fibre is found in wholefood bread and pasta, brown rice, vegetables and fruit, all of which can help with weight control. Increase the amount of fibre in your diet slowly so that it does not result in indigestion.

3. Avoid foods made with refined sugar
Sugar is released during the stress response, but the temporary lift it gives you is quickly followed by chemically-induced weakness and fatigue. Taking in additional sugar in your diet compounds the problem, so substitute refined sugar for more complex carbohydrates such as bread, pasta and cereals.

4. Chew your food
The first digestive step takes place in the mouth where chemicals in the saliva called enzymes begin to break down food. If you bolt down your food, you are skipping a vital stage in the digestive process; you are also more likely to eat more than you need. The result is that you end up with chronic indigestion – the last thing you want when stress is on the horizon.

5. Take time to eat
Get into the habit of thinking that whatever needs to be done can wait for half an hour while you eat your meal. Stop what you are doing, move away from your desk or leave the office, and put some thought into what you eat.

Eating should be an enjoyable experience rather than just a fuel stop. Pause between mouthfuls and between courses. When you have finished your meal, give yourself time to digest your food before returning to your hectic schedule. If possible, eat with someone else as it is always more relaxing if you can have a conversation at meal times.

6. Relax when you eat
Do not eat or drink when you are angry, upset or agitated. Practice a few relaxation exercises first or go for a walk. You will digest your food all the better for delaying your meal.

7. Eat early
Try to eat your last meal at least three hours before going to bed. This gives your body time to digest the food properly and will help you to sleep better.

8. Watch the caffeine!
Coffee, tea and fizzy cola drinks all contain large amounts of caffeine. This gives the body a temporary lift – which is why we always want a cup of coffee or tea when we’re tired – but it depletes the body of vitamins and minerals it needs when it is under stress.

Do not lapse into the stress cycle of relying on a strong cup of coffee to soothe your frazzled nerves or to give you the energy to get you through the day. Too much caffeine is stress-inducing and can cause nervousness, insomnia, and irregular heartbeats. Opt for herbal teas, diluted fresh juices, or plenty of mineral water instead.

9. Avoiding food allergies
Caffeine and sugar are both common food allergens and can create stress symptoms – palpitations and nausea, for instance. But almost any food can cause problems in some people, so it can pay to be aware of how you may be reacting to food. Other common food allergens, like wheat and dairy products, can produce symptoms such as headaches, sleepiness, irritability, and joint pain, all of which look like stress and are definitely made worse by stress.

If you suspect you may have a food allergy, ask your doctor for an allergy test and then avoid the foods that are implicated. Unfortunately, some people find that they have a powerful craving for the foods that they are allergic to. Keep a food diary and rotate suspect foods so as to discover which are to be avoided.

10. Choose fresh food
Under stress your body needs more vitamins and minerals, so try to eat fresh foods. Home-cooked food is healthier than convenience food, take-aways and hamburgers, none of which provide the necessary nutrients your body needs to combat stress.

11. What to decrease and increase
Reduce your intake of red meat and salty foods, and also cut back on fat by using low-fat spreads and margarines. Grill, poach or steam your food in preference to frying. Fatty foods not only make you put on weight but they also clog up your circulatory system and give you bad skin. Basically, an excessive intake of fat strains the body’s systems and hampers, rather than helps, when it comes to stress control.

Increase the amount of white meat, fish, fresh fruit, vegetables, wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta, and brown rice in your diet. All these foods contain valuable nutrients and they do not cause you to put on weight if eaten in moderation. They are, in fact, a vital part of a healthy diet.

Stress busters

In particularly stressful times you may wish to supplement your diet with extra vitamins if you know you are not eating properly. These can give you that much needed vitamin boost but take care not to rely on supplements on a long-term basis – they are no substitute for a well balanced diet.

Nutritionists now acknowledge the benefit of certain foods and vitamins for people under stress, in particular those containing vitamin C, vitamin B complex, zinc and magnesium. These provide the nutrients your adrenal glands need to make hormones, so it makes sense to increase these when you are under stress.

Good sources of vitamin C are broccoli, green peppers, cabbage, citrus fruits, and spinach. Vitamin B complex is found in wholegrain cereals, wholemeal bread, nuts, bananas and avocados. Zinc is found in greatest amounts in meat, dairy products, and eggs. And good sources of magnesium are nuts, wholegrain cereals and green vegetables.

If you think that your diet could be improved, make a commitment today to plan changes in the weak areas. List five way you can do this and gradually introduce them into your routine.

The next section will deal with alcohol and smoking and their effects on stress.

The evils of drink and smoking >>

Text Copyright © Alix Needham
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