Stress is a part of our every day, from sudden moments of stress, such as a driver swerving into your lane, to chronic stress, such as looming work deadlines or financial worries. During acute stress, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode, releasing adrenaline which sends blood to your muscles and increases your heart rate. In a real life-threatening situation, adrenaline helps you run from danger or prepare to fight, and your body expends nutrients. Your body then releases cortisol, which increases appetites to replace those nutrients. Once the stressful moment is over, cortisol levels should fall. However, if stress doesn’t go away, cortisol may stay elevated. This is called chronic stress, which can be caused by work responsibilities, family problems, health concerns, or financial burdens.
Chronic stress is associated with less nutritious food choices, loss of sleep, decreased exercise, and increased alcohol consumption, which can all contribute to lower immune function, weight changes, and GI distress.
For all of these reasons, maintaining a healthful diet can be an afterthought when dealing with stress. Here are some things you can do to maintain your health during these times.
Spread out food thoughtfully throughout the day, focusing on at least 3 meals per day with a few snacks. Even if you have a busy schedule, try to avoid skipping meals. Skipping meals (especially breakfast) can make you more likely to overeat later in the day and not make the best food choices. Try for a filling breakfast to fuel your day: yogurt and fruit, oatmeal, or eggs and whole wheat toast.
Include lots of fiber rich foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains in your meals and snacks. Fiber can help keep you satisfied until your next meal and keep your GI tract regular.
Carry a water bottle with you. Dehydration can contribute to a mid-day slump and brain fog, even when you aren’t stressed out. The recommendations for the average person is 64 ounces of water (or your unsweetened, caffeine-free beverage of choice) each day; however, individual hydration goals vary.
Monitor your caffeine intake, sticking to caffeine-containing beverages only in the morning. Too much caffeine mimics stress by increasing cortisol and adrenaline release. Switch to decaf in the afternoon (this will also help you sleep more soundly).
Pack healthy food in your car, handbag, or briefcase. Stocking your environment with nutritious snacks will keep you from turning into that fast food drive-through during your busy day.
Craving comfort food? High cortisol levels may be responsible for craving food that is high in fat and sugar. Make your favorite comfort food with a healthy twist- add sauteed vegetables to your pasta sauce or lasagna, use whole wheat crust in your pizza, or make your own home-made ice cream by blending Greek yogurt and frozen fruit, like here.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself. During times of crisis, you don’t need one more thing to “stress” about. If you choose to order take-out at the end of a long day, it’s OK. Don’t be upset with yourself if you feel like you have fallen off of your health goal bandwagon. As long as you are making a conscious effort to make healthy choices other times during the day, a treat every now and then can fit into any balanced diet.