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5 tips for healthy eating during stressful times

Stress is your body’s emotional, physical, or mental reaction to an event or situation. Everyone has to deal with stress at some point in their life and common causes of stress include chronic illness, loss of employment, conflicts at work, conflicts at home, loss of a loved one, taking care of an elderly or sick family member, traumatic events, pandemic, and other life-altering events.

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Some stress events are immediate and go away within a short time while others are more long-lasting and chronic. The short-term stresses are often perfectly fine as they train your body to learn how to withstand tough times; however, chronic stress can be damaging to you physically, emotionally, and mentally. Short- and long-term stress can lead to constant headaches, trouble sleeping, high blood pressure, digestive issues, irritability, insomnia, depression, anxiety, moodiness, self-doubt, lack of self-awareness, and chronic diseases.

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Regardless of what type of stress we are under and why we are stressed, we most often tell ourselves we don’t have enough time to relax and detox and often turn to food for comfort. Most people overeat when stressed while others undereat. However, periods of stress are one of the most critical times in our lives where we should absolutely eat high-quality nutritious meals. A good meal has a lot of valuable vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants that can not only help us on our way to healing but can also nourish our body and help us fight any aftereffects of the stressful situation. It is arguably hard to eat right when the rest of the world seems like it’s caving in; however, these five tips on how eat right during stressful times can help you maintain healthy nutrition when times are hard.

Here are five tips on how to maintain good nutrition during difficult times.

1. Prepare your meals ahead of time

During stressful times, we do not care what we eat or might not have time to cook every day. We simply grab whatever food is easily available and make a meal out of it without thinking of the number of calories or quality of nutrients we are eating. However, during periods of stress our bodies are most vulnerable to diseases and illnesses.

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Our immune systems are weakest when we are dealing with a lot of stressors and it’s extremely important to keep our overall health in mind even when we least feel like doing so. So, this period may not be a time to take up a new diet or exercise regimen, or even care about food restrictions, but instead, a time to reflect on yourself while surrounding yourself with healthy meal options. Preparing your meals in advance, loading up your fridge with health options, and buying prepped meals will help you fuel your body with the right comfort food.

2. Eat nuts, fruits, and vegetables

One of the easiest things you should consider eating when stressed, especially when pressed for time, is nuts, fruits and vegetables as they often do not require a lot of prepping. Nuts already come ready-to-eat. Fruits and vegetable are easy to wash, peel, cut, and eat. However, most people don’t choose these healthy options when stressed but instead binge on unhealthy foods and snacks. Having a good selection of fruits and veggies at home will help you manage stress eating especially when it’s unavoidable.

Eat nuts, fruits and veggies during stressful times

Nuts, fruits, and vegetables contain nutrients that are known to physiologically reduce stress levels. For instance, swiss chard contains magnesium which can reduce cortisol, the body’s stress hormone; avocados have omega-3 fatty acids which help to boost our mood as well as decrease stress and anxiety; citrus like oranges contain vitamin C which can reduce anxiety and stress level; nuts like almonds, pistachios, and walnuts contain vitamin B which helps to reduce stress, and also contains magnesium which is beneficial for anxiety; and foods high in fibre which are also mostly nuts, fruits, and vegetables, have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

3. Eat seafood, lean protein, and plant protein

Omega-3 fatty acid as seen in oily fish such as salmon and sardines has been shown to have a positive effect on stress level as well as aggression and hostility related to stress. A six-week study found a significant difference in rate of stress reduction in people who took fish oil compared to those who didn’t. Fish oil has also been shown to reduce two stress hormones – cortisol and adrenaline – which in turn leads to reduced stress. Cortisol is an important hormone in the body that controls energy consumption and regulates our body weight. When high in the body, cortisol can affect fat storage and lead to weight gain during periods of stress. A high cortisol level also increases stress levels.

Eat more plant protein and lean protein to manage stress

Fish oil is also known to reduce perceived stress, reduce duration of stress, and lessen the symptoms of stress and distress. Apart from directly reducing stress, fish oil also increases lean mass, decreases fat mass, which in turn reduces cortisol levels and subsequently reduces our stress level directly. Food rich in omega-3 include wild salmon, oysters, rockfish, mussels, and catfish.

4. Limit caffeine intake

Caffeine as found in coffee and tea can worsen stress and make you feel jumpy and jittery. Caffeine causes an increase in cortisol, which stresses us out by making our body work harder, ultimately increasing our heart rate and blood pressure. This in turn, leads to more stress and injury to our body. Caffeine intake can also lead to anxiety and depression, which can be heightened during stressful periods. Limiting your caffeine intake will help reduce your stress level, or at least keep things under control especially during high stress periods.

Limit caffeine intake during stressful times

To avoid adding to your distress, if you’re a heavy coffee drinker, slow down on your caffeine intake during stressful moments. And if you can, switch to decaf coffee or tea. Do not, however, stop caffeine cold turkey as that can cause headaches which can intensify stress and make things worse.

5. Avoid using food to relieve stress

It goes without saying that most of us eat to relieve stress. We mindlessly reach out for food when we are stressed or have had a bad day. It is often our solution to stress, anxiety, anger, and sometimes, frustration. It probably wouldn’t be a big deal if we mostly ate fruits and veggies, but the reality is that most of us grab what we feel like eating the most and often times, this pattern of emotional eating leads us to processed foods that are unhealthy. Almost everyone has been guilty at some point of eating just to feel better.

Do relaxing activities to manage stress

Unfortunately, binge eating just to relieve stress can be detrimental to our health. We get stressed, we eat junk, we can’t lose weight, then we repeat the cycle, often feeling guilt and helplessness. Even though it’s often easier to eat more to feel better, you should avoid using food to relieve stress; instead, make your house healthy and find other ways to relieve stress such as yoga, meditation, talking a walk, talking to loved family and friends, figuring out what is triggering your stress and addressing it. Even simply taking some 'alone' time to figure things out can help. If you need to eat, stick to foods that are healthy and if you can’t cook, order healthy prep foods that can still satisfy you during those challenging times without jeopardising your health.