By Susan Bowerman
Many of us are dealing with stress these days as we look to find ways to cope with the “new normal.” With families home together all day, and work and school schedules in flux, an inconsistent daily routine can increase anxiety and disrupt healthy eating. This uncertainty can increase stress, which can throw plans for healthy eating out the window and really take a toll on the body.
The body’s natural response to stress leads us to feel a little more ‘on’ and alert. We evolved this ‘fight or flight response’ as a way to defend ourselves against a sudden danger or threat. But when this stress response is turned on all the time, it can tax the body’s immune system, making it more difficult for us to ward off disease. And since a healthy immune system depends on a nutrient-rich diet, being well-nourished is one of the best defenses against illness, particularly during times of ongoing stress.
That’s easier said than done, though. Stress can also bring on fatigue or depression, so healthy eating might take a back seat to foods that are quick or comforting – and often loaded with fat, salt and sugar. And if you’re turning to caffeine to ward off fatigue, that can backfire, too, by disrupting your sleep.
Those high calorie comfort foods can stimulate the release of certain chemicals in the brain that make us feel good – at least in the short term – and make us want to keep eating. But in a vicious cycle, overeating can lead to weight gain – which increases psychological stress and which, in turn, can lead to more overeating.
While you might not be able to make the stress go away, there are things you can do to help you manage the way in which you respond to it.
Eat balanced meals.
Try to include some lean protein – like poultry, eggs, low-fat dairy, lean meats, fish, beans or soy products – with each meal. Protein satisfies hunger and helps keep you mentally alert. Round out your meal with fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Eat regularly and don’t skip meals.
When you’re stressed it’s easy to put meals off – or even skip them altogether – but energy levels will suffer as a result, and you might end up pigging out when you do finally eat. If stress is an appetite-killer, try eating smaller amounts of food more often during the day.
Try to avoid using food as a stress reducer.
A brisk walk or a cup of herbal tea might work instead. If you feel the need to eat, hard crunchy foods help relieve stress by putting tight jaw muscles to work. Try snacking on a handful of almonds, soy nuts or baby carrots.
Cut back on caffeine.
People often feel a lack of energy when they’re stressed and turn to caffeine as a pick me up, but it can disrupt your night’s sleep. If caffeine keeps you awake at night, drink decaffeinated coffees and teas.
Try to keep mealtimes pleasant and separate from work or other sources of stress.
If you’re eating at desk while you work, or paying bills while you eat dinner, something’s got to give. Take a little extra time to slow down and relax while you eat – you’re likely to eat less and enjoy it more.
Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND, is Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training, Herbalife Nutrition.