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Best Foods to Combat Stress
Don’t panic. Eat this instead.
Stress in life is inevitable and, in some cases, can be a good thing. Stress can help motivate you to reach your goals and accomplish tasks more efficiently. Research shows that modest, short-lived stress can improve alertness and boost memory. The key word there? Short-lived.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, can put you at risk for many health problems, including depression and heart disease. “Stress can affect many different areas of your body including the immune system, digestive tract, hormones, mental health and metabolism,” says dietitian and CEO of NY Nutrition Group Lisa Moskovitz. “This can translate to an increased rate of infections or colds, irregular menstrual cycles, skin breakouts, mood instability, poor sleep, digestion issues and weight changes. Ultimately, excess stress can make it difficult to practice self-care that can compound any of the above symptoms.”
Chronic stress is classified as long-term overexposure to the stress hormone cortisol, which can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. Finding ways to manage and reduce chronic stress is absolutely key for health—and some ways are better than others.
One common way people cope with stress is by eating—and that’s okay. Comfort foods are comforting for a reason. But if you’re looking to optimize what you eat for stress and anxiety, we turned to the experts to get some ideas.
Q: Why do people turn to food when they’re stressed?
“Stress activates the fight-or-flight response in our body,” says Moskovitz. “This means we are either preparing to fight off the perceived offender or run away from it. In either scenario, this requires extra energy. That’s why when we’re feeling stressed out, our body may automatically demand more food. Usually, the type of food we seek out is quick energy-releasing foods such as sweets, starches and processed snacks.”
“It's important to remember that food is more than fuel,” says dietician at Sunrise Nutrition Kelly Wolffe. “Food has cultural, familial and personal meaning. It's normal and natural to turn to food as a source of comfort, which isn’t an inherently bad thing. To be able to enjoy and get pleasure from food is a wonderful part of the human experience. I see emotionally-driven eating become problematic only when it becomes the main emotional coping tool in one's toolbelt. That's when the coping mechanism itself can become harmful and actually increase emotional distress.”
Q: When it comes to foods that reduce stress, should we be paying attention to carbs, protein and fat?
“Carbs, protein and fat are important macronutrients that support the gut microbiome, known as the second brain,” says dietitian and CEO of New York City Nutrition Lorraine Kearney. “They contain essential nutrients to support gut health, stabilize blood sugar and help decrease the stress response.”
Getting in a mix of carbs, protein and fat will help satiate the brain and body quicker, which can prevent overeating when stressed. “Although it may seem like the best approach [to reduce stress] is to avoid food, that’s not the case,” says Moskovitz. “Certain foods can actually help calm your mind and body, and help you better manage daily life stressors. Eating at regular intervals, including a balance of food groups and prioritizing nutrient-dense foods can work wonders for how you feel.”
Moskovitz says that carbs influence blood sugar, which supplies fuel directly to the brain (where mood is managed). The more stable your blood sugar levels, the more stable your mood. Proteins provide essential amino acids that help produce serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a key brain chemical responsible for mood stability. And dietary fats are important because they help stabilize blood sugar levels and provide vital nutrients that support a healthy mind and body. Anti-inflammatory fats such as extra virgin olive oil, avocados, fish oil, nuts and seeds also fight against oxidative stress that can negatively impact our mental health.
Q: What are some of the best foods to combat stress?
Kearney likes to combine complex carbohydrates (fruits, veggies and whole grains) with lean proteins (chicken breast, eggs, white fish and Greek yogurt) plus healthy fats like walnuts, almonds and chia seeds.
For Moskovitz, it’s all about avocados. “Avocados provide an assortment of essential nutrients, including vitamin E, potassium and magnesium, which fight against different types of physical and mental stress,” she says. “Enjoy avocados mashed up on whole grain toast, pureed into your favorite pasta sauce or blended into a nutritious fruit smoothie.”
Another stress-reducing powerhouse? Beans. “Beans provide tons of magnesium that directly enhances nerve and muscle function while also promoting a calmer mind,” says Moskovitz. “I also like red grapes, which are a leading source of resveratrol. Studies show resveratrol promotes healthy aging, cellular rejuvenation, fights against inflammation and protects against heart disease.”
Q: Are there specific things to avoid if we want to keep stress levels low?
“Alcohol, caffeine, excess sugar or highly processed foods,” says Kearney. “These foods are low in many of the nutrients needed to support the body on the cellular level.”
Wolffe says that when it comes to reducing stress, pay attention to how you eat as much as what you eat. “How quickly do you eat when stressed?” she asks. “How often are you eating when not physically hungry? What is fullness like when you finish eating? Constant policing of what you eat can actually contribute to higher stress levels, whereas working on fostering a positive relationship with food, movement and your body can help lower stress.”
“Pay attention to the taste, texture, colors and flavors of food,” suggests Kearney. “Turn off all distractions when eating. And don’t wait longer than five hours between meals.”
Mindful eating when stressed can help prevent overeating and encourage healthier choices. So next time you feel anxiety coming on, take a minute to breathe before reaching for a bag of potato chips. Stick to a healthy mix of carbs, protein and fats, and take it slow. And if you’re looking for more ways to reduce stress, think about exercise before/after meals. Need more inspiration? Check out some of our latest apparel drops.