In Need of Stress Relief? The Answer Might Be in Your Diet

Experts explain how a healthy diet helps combat stress and how to eliminate junk food cravings

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When we think about stress-relief, most often we think about things like breathing exercises, relaxing yoga poses or maybe even an intense exercise session, like boxing or spinning.

Not that these practices aren’t great ways to relieve and manage stress, but since they sort of “steal the spotlight,” if you will, diet is often overlooked as part of the stress-fighting picture.  

“Eating a healthy diet can reduce the negative effects of stress on your body,” said Matthew J. Kuchan, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at Abbott. “A healthy diet builds a solid, more enduring foundation for your body by reducing oxidation and inflammation and by helping to reduce weight gain.”

Of course, and especially when we’re extra busy and, subsequently, more likely to be stressed, eating healthy is certainly not an easy habit to maintain. For many, prepping healthy meals doesn’t always fit into a busy schedule and dining out is the norm more often than not.

“This generally contributes to a less healthy diet,” Kuchan said. “We all know how easy it is to treat ourselves to that rich, high-fat meal we have been craving — but would usually not fix for ourselves.”

For this reason, building a healthy food prep habit into your daily or weekly routine can greatly improve your overall diet, and eventually lead to reduced stress levels.

“Eating at home generally increases the likelihood that you will eat a healthy diet,” Kuchan explained. “One way to make it easier to eat a healthy diet is to keep fresh nutritious foods on hand. Many can also be kept frozen or dried — like nuts, fruits and high fiber cereals.”

Related:8 Quick Tips for Eating Healthy When Dining Out

How Exactly Do Healthy Foods Reduce Stress?
“Stress negatively effects blood pressure and blood flow,” Kuchan said. “There is a strong relationship between fluctuations in brain blood flow and brain health and these compounds over time.”

Nutrients from healthy foods, Kuchan explained, can help improve blood flow in the body.

“Examples of nutrients that improve blood flow include omega-3s (EPA and DHA), vitamin E and polyphenols found in red wine, blueberries and dark chocolate,” Kuchan said. “In this way, a healthy diet has a ‘cascading effect’ on brain health because as it improves blood flow, the delivery of key nutrients to the brain is also improved. Consistent with this, physical fitness is one of the strongest ‘anti-cognitive decline’ factors and it acts by maintaining healthy blood flow to the brain.”

Omega-3s are found in fish like salmon and tuna and also provide anti-inflammatory effects, Kuchan explained. You can find vitamin E in foods like sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach and avocados.

Kuchan also mentioned that more recent studies are uncovering the stress-fighting effects of plant compounds.

“Like polyphenols and carotenoids found in foods like green leafy vegetables and bright colored peppers,” he said.

Additionally, Kuchan also pointed to the growing body of research indicating a strong link between digestive health and the brain.

“Emerging research is now suggesting that the gut microbiome can influence the body, including the brain,” he said. “The microbiome can be supported by consuming fiber-containing foods like beans, vegetables, cereals and yogurt.”

Related: 6 Simple Steps to Better Digestive Health

Fighting Stress-Induced Cravings
If you’re like most, times of high stress are also times when you feel most inclined to reach for an oily, salty bag of chips or a sugary sweet tub of ice cream. Of course, these foods are OK to eat every once in a while, but you don’t want to make a habit of turning to less nutritious foods when you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious.

“During times of stress, instead of mindlessly eating and therefore coping with food, find other activities that take your mind off the stress at hand,” said Pam Bede, a sports dietitian for Abbot’s EAS Sports Nutrition. “Many individuals find that outdoor activities, exercise or hobbies help get them out of the kitchen and onto something else.”

On the other hand, if you’re stressed out but genuinely hungry, make an effort to recognize that you’re under pressure and in need of important nutrients.

“Try not to fall victim to the call of the ice cream,” Bede said. “Instead, establish that you do indeed need fuel and then take a step back to determine what would be a healthy choice. If you feel that you can’t eat healthfully during times of stress, it may be better to go for a walk and return to the kitchen when you can make a choice that’s good for your body and for your mind.”

More Reading:
How Stress Can Cause You to Gain Weight
Stress-Busting Yoga Moves You Can Do at Your Desk
Expert Advice for Fighting Stress-Induced Junk Food Cravings

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