Managing stress through a combination of strategies, such as physical activity, meditation and getting support from people who can offer solid advice are all important. However, a less-common strategy is eating to manage stress more effectively.
Stress is nutritionally expensive
Nutrients are required to synthesise adrenaline and cortisol, our stress hormones. Many of the same nutrients are also required for the synthesis of powerful neurotransmitters such as serotonin and melatonin, both neurotransmitters that calm us down and usher in restful sleep.
Nature ranks survival above sleep, so responding to stress first, and sleep second, becomes our brain and body’s default position when stress becomes chronic and we’re short on the right nutrients.
Unfortunately, stress leads to increased consumption of highly processed and palatable, nutrient deficient foods as they stimulate opioid release which calms the stress response. This can quickly lead to nutrient deficiencies if stress becomes chronic.
Most of us know the feeling of needing something yummy to make us feel better when we feel overwhelmed. We reach for that chocolate bar, coffee or packet of crisps in an attempt to manage the unpleasant emotions that accompany stress.
Stress makes our blood glucose unstable
Stress leads to blood glucose instability because the brain sends the muscles a message via adrenalin to use glucose as energy to run from or fight a tiger – real or otherwise.
Thereafter, it dips quickly, which can result in that shaky feeling you get after getting a big fright, such as just missing being involved in a car accident.
When blood glucose levels are unstable we are driven to eat something that will provide a quick energy boost, and often make poor choices because we are too hungry to think properly and make good food decisions.
Unfortunately, when blood glucose levels go up and down regularly there’s an increased risk of carbohydrates being stored as fat.
So, although many people fear that working from home and having access to their fridge has led to weight gain, part of the present weight gain challenge for many is due to the effect of extra stress hormones.
Is deprivation the solution?
Feeling stressed and feeling pressured to eat healthy food will just add to the already large load of stress that most of us are carrying right now.
The solution is to make our food as delicious as possible by keeping an important fact in mind: flavour molecules disperse more effectively in fat than in water. This is why the fat-free craze led to food that tasted bland and boring.
Make sure every meal or snack you consume also contains good fats. In addition,
- Use nutrient dense, colourful produce to create delicious meals – it’s not all about salads thank goodness. Think about rich stews, pastas, soups and roasted vegetables that contain a variety of fresh, fibre-filled produce – then top the meal with a generous drizzle of good fats, such as olive oil.
- Use good fats and natural forms of sweetness to create delicious treats and desserts and if you do eat something very sweet make sure you also eat good fat with it, as that will slow the blood glucose spike somewhat. And if you’re used to drinking artificially sweetened drinks rather create delicious, sparkling drinks with carbonated water and small quantities of highly flavoured, natural fruit juices like pomegranate and berry.
- Experiment with reducing the amount of caffeine you consume, with each serve, or replacing every second cup of coffee with a water-filtered, decaffeinated coffee. If you can’t do without coffee right now, don’t eat any sweet carbohydrates with it, as that increases the chances of weight gain.
Our ability to manage stress needs to embrace as many helpful strategies as possible. Ensuring an optimal amount of the right nutrients is a critical one of these strategies.