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How to Combat Stress With a Healthy Diet

Fitday Editor

In biological terms, stress refers to the aftermath of a stimulus that disturbs our mental or physical equilibrium. Stressful events can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response. This causes hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to be released throughout the body. While a little bit of stress can keep us energized and alert, long-term stress, or “chronic stress,” can wreak havoc on the body and cause detrimental effects to overall health.

A well-balanced diet plays an important role when we are under stress. From a nutritional point of view, the same things that we strive for in our overall health can also help to safeguard our body’s response to stressful situations and effectively repair damage.

Often, when a person becomes burdened with stress, a common reaction is an impulsive urge to eat. Additionally, the majority of the time, foods consumed under stress will be “convenience foods” or “comfort foods,” which are typically loaded with simple sugars and fats. While these comfort foods in theory seem like a quick fix, consuming unhealthy foods actually can increase the volume of stress on the body. The resulting spike in blood sugar and insulin levels that they cause, on top of the already high cortisol levels, can lead you to crave more. In addition, these foods tend to be lacking the many essential vitamins and minerals that your body needs to help reduce stress. Take the attributes of comfort food that you crave: creamy, sweet, crunchy etc., and find a healthier alternative to substitute.

Often times stress can also have the opposite effect, making people skip or forget to eat meals. Make a conscious effort to eat frequently throughout the day in order to maintain optimal blood sugar and avoid possible binge eating later. Be sure to include protein and healthy fat sources in each meal or snack as well. This will help to boost your alertness, keeping you focused, full and ready to tackle your stress.

Coffee and other caffeinated beverages can increase levels of certain stress hormones. They also tend to mimic the effects of these hormones on the body through increasing the heart rate. As an alternative, stick with water. Staying well hydrated is essential for overall health. Even moderate levels of dehydration can leave you feeling sluggish, tired and reaching back to those comfort foods for a pick-me-up.

While you can’t always tame a heavy work load or others of life’s stresses, giving your body the fuel it needs is one easy way to calm the harmful effects of stress. Look for simple swaps and additions you can do to make balanced nutrition a part of your hectic lifestyle. Even making a few simple changes can drastically lower the negative effects of stress on the body and help nurture your overall physical and mental health.

Sarah Dreifke is a freelance writer based in DeKalb, IL with a passion for nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease. She holds a Bachelor of Science in both Dietetics and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is working towards a combined Master's Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics as well as a dietetic internship at Northern Illinois University.

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