Stress, anxiety and overwhelm are a normal and inevitable part of life to a certain extent for most people. The important part, though, is what you can do to take action and manage how you deal with stress.
For many, there is a very clear connection between high levels of stress and reaching for comfort foods. Unfortunately, the foods that we crave when we are stress eating are not the healthiest choices. Think chips, ice cream, cake or cookies. It is very easy to make the excuse when our emotions override our better judgement to opt for unhealthy choices because we think that it will make us feel better. Often that sense of feeling better is long gone when the food is gone and then we realize that we actually feel worse. Also during these times when our emotions and stress hormones override our brain, we are not paying attention to the feelings of hunger and feeling full, so it is very easy to overeat as well.
Chronic stress affects your ability to get deep, restorative sleep, drains your energy levels during the day, affects your moods, slows down your digestive system and weakens your immune response. Stress is the main factor in the contributing cause of most chronic diseases.
What Not to Eat
Let's start with what you want to avoid when you are feeling stressed. You don't want to make your situation worse by reaching for foods that actually put your body under more stress and are only going to make you feel worse. Stress depletes important nutrients and affects your hormones. Bad food just exacerbates this cycle.
Stress eating no-no's:
High fat foods
High sugar foods
What To Eat Instead:
Good nutrition is foundational and essential for a healthy stress response. It is so important to support your body when it is going through a stressful time. You want to eat foods that boost feel-good hormones, lower your blood pressure, reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) levels, and balance your moods while supplying you with the nutrients that are being depleted.
You want to shoot for 3-5 small, wholesome meals per day to allow your digestive system to work properly and keep your blood sugar levels balanced.
7 stress-management food choices to get you through your day:
Avocado: Helps regulate blood sugar levels keeping your mood steady. Try avocado toast or veggies dipped in home-made guacamole for a snack.
Walnuts: Grab a handful for a snack and a quick dose of healthy fats
Spinach: Helps your body produce hormones that regulate your mood. It also lowers blood pressure and is rich in essential vitamins and minerals. Add a cup to your morning smoothie to start the day right-you won't even know it's there.
Cooked tomato: Can help lower cortisol levels and is rich in lycopene which is linked to a reduction in depressive symptoms. Enjoy a bowl of tomato soup for lunch.
Bell peppers: Helps lower cortisol levels as well as boosting immunity with their high levels of vitamin C. Snack on strips dipped in hummus.
Salmon: Chock full of healthy fats to regulate hormones and elevate your mood. Try grilled salmon over a bed of spinach for a double whammy mood boost.
Dark Chocolate: Contains magnesium and zinc which can be depleted during times of stress but are necessary to support oxidative stress protection. Choose good quality dark chocolate and have a small amount in moderation.
Stress-Free Meal Time
How you eat is almost as important as what you eat. Rest and relax before and after you eat and avoid distractions during your meal. Take your time, breathe deeply and chew slowly to put your body into the rest and digest state so that you can absorb all the good nutrients from your food.
And...don't forget to stay hydrated with lots of water during the day to help circulate all those good nutrients that you are eating.
You may find it easier to evaluate how you handle stress and the food choices that you make when you are not actually feeling stressed. Awareness is the first step and this allows you to come up with your response ahead of time. It will take practice until you make it a habit. Planning ahead will give you the opportunity to have healthy choices already in place.
Make it really difficult to make a bad choice in the moment by not even purchasing those bad foods that you might normally reach for in the first place. Once you are regularly making good choices you will realize you actually do feel better and you'll begin doing it more and more until stress eating junk food is a long lost memory and you make healthy choices without even realizing it!