We all know it too well – stress makes us crave sweet and fatty foods, or we lose our appetite altogether. While an ideal diet may not be your priority, when you’re under pressure, eating the right kind of foods may help you cope better with the stress.
What’s happening in the body when you are stressed?
Stress can be caused by external events, our mind or a physical injury. It’s a natural reaction of the body that’s meant to help you get out of a dangerous situation. Stress is your self-defence response and as such, it’s not bad – it’s only bad when it lasts or when you find yourself in a stressful situation too often.
When you’re exposed to a stressor – someone shouts at you, you feel threatened, an important event is coming up or you lose your wallet – your body reacts with a fight-or-flight response meant to make you ready for action. Stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released, resulting in a faster heartbeat, higher blood pressure, faster breathing, mobilisation of energy reserves, increased blood flow to your muscles and paused digestion.
It’s a survival mechanism that’s incredibly useful if you’re running away from a pack of wolves but not so much when you’re sitting at your desk, fretting over an important work task.
When the stressor persists, the stress hormone release continues and can lead to tiredness, sleep problems, digestion issues, a weakened immune system, irritability and negative thinking. The latter is also a part of the fight-or-flight reaction – it makes you perceive things more negatively to be aware of potential dangers.
What does food have to do with it?
When you’re stressed, your blood sugar and fat levels go up to prepare you for action, supplying muscles with all they may need. Your body is drawing these nutrients from its reserves and as a result, you can feel hungrier. In particular, it can make you crave sweet and fatty foods because those are packed with energy.
Of course, stress-management techniques, such as breathwork (controlled breathing), mindfulness or reframing the situation, as well as avoiding stress are all paramount but what you eat also matters greatly.
Food can help you relieve some stress or it can make you more stressed. Processed foods such as fatty savoury snacks, biscuits, chocolate bars, white bread, pot noodles, sweets and cakes, deep-fried foods, chips and other fat and sugar-filled foods may satisfy your cravings but will leave your body hungry for nutrients. That, in turn, increases your stress levels.
What to eat to reduce stress?
1. Wholegrains – wholemeal bread, oats, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, buckwheat noodles or shredded wheat. All these will give you energy the healthy way – as complex carbohydrates, rather than sugars. They also provide fibre which keeps your digestive system healthy and feeds your good gut bacteria helping to support your immune system.
2. Tryptophan-rich foods – we need the amino acid tryptophan to make serotonin, the feel-good hormone. Having a plentiful supply can make us more stress-resilient. Tryptophan-rich foods include nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts and pistachios), seeds (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower and chia seeds), soya beans (edamame), tofu and tempeh, peas, beans, lentils, oats, wheat germ, bananas, spinach and other leafy greens.
To turn tryptophan into serotonin, your body also requires vitamins C, B6, folate, biotin, magnesium, zinc and omega-3 fats. And it just so happens that healthy plant-based diets supply all these!
3. Good fats – when you eat saturated fats, such as coconut or palm oil, or hydrogenated fats in processed foods and shortening, you will stress your body even more and can increase your blood pressure. On the other hand, if you choose nuts and seeds, nut butters, virgin olive oil and omega-3 fats, your body will get all it needs and some antioxidants too!
For your daily omega-3 dose, have a heaped tablespoon of ground flaxseed or chia seeds, a teaspoon of flaxseed oil, a couple of tablespoons of hemp seeds or a small handful of walnuts.
4. Fruit and veggies – bursting with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, fruit and vegetables help you combat stress by supplying the essential nutrients your body needs at an increased level. If you’re not a big fruit and veg eater, throw a few pieces in a blender and make a smoothie.
5. Dark chocolate – choose at least 70 per cent cocoa content! Cocoa stimulates the nervous system to release endorphins, the so-called “happy hormones”, and it can trigger the release of dopamine, inducing pleasurable states of mind. Then, there’s anandamide – a special compound that produces blissful feelings! Dark chocolate is also a source of tryptophan, magnesium (essential for muscles) and iron.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee makes you release an extra dose of stress hormones and that’s what makes you more alert. When you’re stressed, you don’t really need that but if you’re used to coffee, drinking it in moderation is not a bad thing. That’s because it also contains a good dose of antioxidants and studies have shown that around three cups a day is a safe amount for healthy people.
However, tea is better – it contains a substance called L-theanine, an amino acid that reduces anxiety and boosts your mood. Green tea is the best source as it has less caffeine than black tea but both are good sources.
What if you lose your appetite when stressed?
Some people lose their appetite when stressed, feel a “knot” in their stomach and find it hard to eat. Try these three steps to help you regain your appetite:
1. Go for a walk – any walk will do, even if it’s just around the block or to the shop and back. Physical activity helps to burn some of those stress hormones and can make you a little hungry.
2. Make a meal schedule – eating at regular times can help your body reset its normal hunger cues.
3. Find meals that you can tolerate even when you don’t feel like eating – you may not want a big meal but perhaps you can stomach some morning cereal, toast with peanut butter and jam or soup.
Eat to de-stress
Many of us stress-eat but when we shift the dynamic, we can eat to de-stress. Eating good, wholesome foods, being physically active and finding time for self-care are the key steps to reducing our stress levels.