Written by Matthew A. Piacentini Friday, 15 April 2011 00:00
We all know too well what stress is. At work, at home… and everywhere in between, we live it every day. One thing we also do every day - that can actually aid in how we deal with stress - is eat.
Healthy Living spoke with Nancy Copperman, MS, RD, CDN, director of North Shore LIJ’s Public Health Initiatives Office of Community Health. She has some interesting tips on how you can actually use diet to combat the effect that our tense and demanding lifestyles have on our bodies.
Copperman said that a “stress map” has been made to analyze areas of the country where people experience the highest levels of stress. The results may not be surprising.
“If you look at where the high-stress areas were 20 or 30 years ago, versus where they are today, it is no longer just certain areas. Across the country, life is just more stressful,” Copperman said. “The studies show we are getting more stressed.”
Life in general has become faster paced. Mobile devices keep us tuned in to social and work demands on a 24/7 basis.
“That means you’re never really getting any rest,” Copperman added. “We have no down time. We’re constantly dealing with life’s issues – so where do we have time to step back and refresh and relax to take a deep breath?”
From teens to adults to seniors and even children, life doesn’t provide much breathing room.
“Even with young people,” said Copperman, “kids used to come home and play outside. Now many have so many activities. I’ve heard of families eating dinner in the car between things – with everyone traveling everywhere.”
So, what is the risk of this faster paced, more active life? Copperman said that when you are stressed your body is working overtime so that you can meet all the challenges you face. This means that after a while your body can break down. “Hypertension, headaches, depression, anxiety, general fatigue, getting ill to the point that you can’t function - these are all risks we run if we don’t manage stress,” she said.
And beyond the physical, she reminds us to think about our life as a whole. “If all this is going on, your quality of life and how you relate to your friends, your significant other, your family is affected. You’re not going to be able to enjoy them. Emotionally, physically, even economically, if you can’t work to the best of your ability and manage the things you need to manage, so much in your life is at risk then.”
Copperman points out that the more stressed you are the poorer you tend to eat. If we are hurriedly grabbing take-out, it is so easy to make the wrong choices. And if we are home and coping with anxiety, it’s common to go for comfort foods and temporary junk fixes.
But here are some alternatives that actually heal health issues and lower your stress level:
• Dark chocolate – Good news to many, a small amount of chocolate controls stress. “Polyphenols elevate your mood,” said Copperman. “Not that you eat a whole candy bar, but a one ounce piece is very helpful.” The idea is moderation – within a balanced diet, you get 200 “discretionary calories” each day. Chocolate can be a great fit in that space.
• Crunchy veggies – There is a reason that potato chips are so popular. The activity of eating that type of food actually calms you. Along the same lines, eating carrots, pepper, celery and other crunchy vegetables has been proven to reduce stress in the same way. The difference: “You can chomp on a whole lot of these veggies without getting a lot of calories,” Copperman said. “Studies have been done where people under stress ate carrots, celery and pepper and it was evaluated that their stress level was lowered. Usually, we grab comfort food, which feels good, but after you’ve consumed thousands of calories from nutrient sparse foods, we feel even worse. This way, you get feel-good food but you don’t get the guilt on the back end.”
• Omega 3 fatty acids – For dealing with sad feelings and stress, these are known as a miracle nutrient. You need to get your omega 3 from an actual food though, rather than a supplement, Copperman said. Wild-caught cold-water fish are major source.
• Controlling your blood sugar – When you are hungry, you get cranky and tired. When you eat, you feel better as your glucose level or blood sugar goes up, but depending on what you eat, your sugar can either drop again or stay steady and keep you feeling good. “White bread or candy or juice will serve to bring up glucose,” Copperman explained, “but then insulin’s job is to regulate the glucose, so it sucks out that sugar and you plummet again.”
So, don’t skip meals. And snack in between. Choose low-glycemic foods that won’t spike your sugar, like whole grains – pasta, peas, beans, lentils, or whole grain bread. How do you tell if something is whole grain? “Look at the fiber content. If it has 2 grams or more per-serving, that gives you a good idea that the food is high in fiber,” Copperman shared.
You can also use protein to keep a steady glucose level. Some low fat cheese, chicken or turkey, an egg white, or low fat yogurt all work.
You also want good fats like olive oil. One good lunch, for instance, would be salmon with avocado in a salad. The monounsaturated fat makes you feel satisfied and controls blood glucose issues.
Caffeine – If you picture yourself running on a treadmill all day, that is what living on coffee or energy drinks is doing to your body. If you turn to caffeine and sugar every time you have to meet a deadline or perk up for a meeting, your heart rate and blood pressure are kept up, and your body is only getting a temporary boost that has to keep coming from more and more drinks.
A “stress happy meal” – Copperman ended by recommending the perfect combination of foods for combating stress. Based on the information above, you should create a balanced meal, choosing something like a whole grain bun with salmon, some fruits and veggies on the side, and an ounce of chocolate for dessert. Wash it down with a glass of milk. The tryptophan will relax you, and you’re getting healthy protein.
Take it slow –The key is to make small, realistic adjustments in your diet over time. Any changes are positive changes that will help you feel better!