Five stress-busting food strategies

These are stressful times, with economic uncertainty on everyone's mind. Stress affects us and our health in many ways. One of the things we may not consider is how it affects us in a nutritional sense. Eating right is always important - it can help protect us from heart disease and stroke, for instance. But it may be especially difficult and important during times of stress. Rather than react to stress, we should consider ways to prevent or lessen the amount of stress in the first place.

When people are stressed and anxious, they tend to overeat -- especially things that aren't so nutritious. Or they may opt to skip meals, drink more alcohol, order in more often than not, and toss aside some healthy behaviors such as exercise and adequate sleep, two things that affect our weight as well.

When we dine out of the home, we are typically getting more calories from fat and more sodium, and less vitamins/minerals than had we prepared the meal ourselves.

When we are stressed, our body produces stress hormones, in particular, cortisol and adrenaline. We are just not choosing the foods that can help us in stressful times.

We've all heard a lot about the economic bailout plan. Well, here's a nutritional bailout plan:

Five key strategies to eating well under stressful times:

  1. Shop for food on a regular basis. Keep certain things around that you can grab when you're running out of the house. Fruits and veggies, granola bars. What I see is that people are working long hours, they don't make it a point to shop on a consistent weekly basis. They'll instead fill in as they go, which often sets them up to take the easier albeit less healthy route and order in or dine out. Food shopping on a regular basis will set you up to be prepared during difficult times. Think of it as your earthquake kit, except it's your food kit. Food-shop regularly, so when you leave the house in a hurry you're able to grab and go Have your environment support your goals. When you shop, go with a list of items for the week. If you are going out for three business dinners that week, you know you won't eat as much food at home. Shop the perimeter of the store. But there are certain things you shouldn't keep around - and you probably know what they are. During really stressful times, it may not be the best time to keep a lot of high fat, processed foods on hand that may be hard to do without.

  2. Aim to eat at home more often - it's cheaper and much healthier. (and share those home-cooked meals with family and friends). This is a period of economic stress. We've seen food prices rise and we've all watched the markets do gymnastics. Cooking will save you money, and you will get more nutrients from food you prepare than you would from processed foods. And eating with loved ones, being around people we enjoy, will lower our stress levels. When we sit down at the table and laugh together, everyone feels better. You don't have to make it a big production and blow the budget with filet mignon.

    Simple ideas - Have either frozen or prewashed veggies at home, you can buy rice cooker and set it before you leave the house so that when you get home it's ready. Grill some chicken or fish or lean red meat.

    Make omelets with veggies and whole grain toast

    Pasta with precut/prewashed veggies, red sauce or olive oil and Parmesan cheese

    Big salad with nuts, low fat cheese, tomatoes and homemade vinaigrette coupled with soup or chicken and quick grain (couscous, rice, quinoa).

  3. Don't skip meals, especially breakfast!! And don't underestimate the importance of snacking in between meals. Skipping breakfast will only set you up to be ravenous later in the day. It sets you up to be ravenous at the next meal. Then you will probably eat twice as many calories and will eat less healthy foods. When we're that hungry, our common sense goes out the door. Snacking in between meals (on fresh fruit or healthier bars or lite cheese or small amount of nuts) can keep our hunger at bay while providing healthy nutrients.

  4. Be mindful of liquid calories - and don't let coffee substitute for food. So often, liquid calories are empty calories. Not just sodas but also these flavored waters, sports drinks, etc. And even if they are not completely empty, they are not as nutrition-packed as they could be. Don't assume that drinking orange juice means you're getting the healthy benefit of an orange. Drinking 12 ounces of juice is the equivalent of 3 oranges. Better to eat one orange.

  5. Two healthier and more effective ways to cope with stress is get moving - EXERCISE! 30 min a day can help reduce the negative effects of the stress hormone cortisol. And make sure to get enough zzz's. Lack of sleep increases cortisol levels. Decrease sleep hours increases ghrelin (a hormone with triggers our appetite) and decreases leptin (a hormone that suppresses our appetite). One way to decrease stress is to exercise, whether it be a 10 minute walk or with a friend. Movement actually calms us down and helps alleviate the stress we're experiencing. Lack of sleep can actually put pounds on for many reasons. Don't underestimate the importance of sleep.

5 key foods to reach for:

  1. Fresh fruit. Loaded with fiber, vitamins and antioxidants, which can protect our body from free radical damage that can occur during times of stress. Fills us up on very few calories. antioxidants

  2. Fiber - found in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, helps to maintain an even blood sugar, fill us up, contains important vitamins and minerals which protect our bodies under times of stress.

  3. Water - It may sound strange to think of water as a nutrient but it's vitally important. Our bodies are 60% water. If we're dehydrated, we're tired, so we think we need to eat. Drinking enough water will keep us sharper. Don't allow thirst to dictate whether you are adequately hydrated or not. We don't per se need 8 glasses of water/day. What we need to keep in mind is how often we're going to the bathroom, and the color of our urine. For some people who exercise a fair amount, you may need more water. We often get dehydrated when we are running around a lot, or traveling, or when we drink alcohol. Remember, water, along with tea, coffee, fresh fruit, vegetables, soups, and carbonated waters all count as water.

  4. Protein - a macronutrient that helps fill us up and provide satiety or fullness. Aim for leaner choices of protein such as skinless chicken, fish, lean red meat, light or lowfat cheese, eggs.

  5. Omega 3 fats: been shown to play a role in combating depression and inflammation, two things we can experience under times of stress. Aim for food sources as often as you can (canned salmon, sardines, herring, walnuts, avocados, canola oil).
Beware of nutritional claims. If a food has to claim something order to be sold, don't buy it. You never see an apple that says: I'm healthy, buy me.

Shop the perimeter of the store!
If a food bears a claim, beware!
Eat foods you can pronounce, foods that your grandparents would have recognized as food.

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