A complex phenomenon, stress is a common problem that millions of people have to deal with at some point in their lives. While most people are aware of external factors related to work, relationships, family, etc. that cause stress, only a handful understand how their immune, digestive, and nervous system are involved in creating or fighting stress. Even fewer people understand the relationship between food and stress.
The scientific community has studied how food and stress are related for many decades now. Dietitians, psychologists, counselors, and other professionals have put in efforts as well.
In this post, we will discuss how dietary habits and stress are interlinked. Read on.
In this article
Relationship between stress and eating habits
Stress can have a major effect on ‘how you eat,’ ‘what you eat,’ and ‘how much you eat.’ In other words, stress can alter your dietary habits.
Conversely, if you eat certain foods or stick to unhealthy dietary habits, you may become susceptible to experiencing a greater level of stress.
Understanding this relationship will enable you to make more informed choices in the future.
How does stress affect eating?
There’s a proven connection between stress and appetite. But, the relationship between food and stress is not exactly the same for everyone.
While acute stress is associated with loss of appetite and reduction in body weight, chronic stress is known to cause over-consumption of palatable foods and obesity.
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Therefore, some people may subconsciously start ignoring their hunger cues and skip meals while others turn into emotional eaters and reach out for unhealthy foods.
Psychologically, the first set of people is so consumed by stress that they fail to tune into their hunger cues. The second set of people use overeating as a distraction. On a deeper level, it’s how your brain responds to stress that ultimately alters eating behavior.
Stress doesn’t just affect your eating habits. Numerous metabolic changes may also occur in response to stress.
Why stress causes people to overeat?
Besides a spike in blood sugar level and blood pressure, stress triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol from adrenal glands.
Release of these stress hormones as well as other changes are part of biological ‘fight or flight’ responses.
Such biological responses generally help you deal with perceived threats in a stressful situation (inside or outside the body). It’s a survival mechanism. However, chronic activation of this mechanism is known to have an adverse impact on health.
A biological response to stress makes you crave more food because your brain thinks that it needs more energy to fight whatever is causing the stress. It’s as simple as that.
When you do eat sugary, salty, or fatty foods, they provide a much sought-after energy spike. So, these foods slowly become your ‘comfort foods.’ The next time you are anxious due to some reason or your body is under stress, you will feel stronger cravings for these ‘comfort foods.’ This is exactly how stress causes people to overeat.
Food and stress management
The best way to avoid stress or emotional eating is to be simply aware of what triggers it and be ready to resist the urge.
Daily demands of personal and professional lives, as well as excessive use of electronic devices, often put an increasingly large number of people at high risk of stress eating. During an annual nationwide survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2014, 33% of Americans reported having eaten too much/eaten unhealthy foods in the past month due to stress.
Part of getting ready to overcome emotional eating is to arm oneself with healthy foods. This way, even if you have an irresistible urge to snack on something, you’d at least be nourishing yourself. Opt for healthy snacks such as almonds, fat granola, peanuts, yogurt with fresh fruit, etc. that are rich in fiber and/or protein.
Later in this post, we have discussed various foods, including fruits that are known to provide relief against stress.
You may also want to keep things like a stress ball handy to help alleviate anxiety. Or try simple breathing exercises every once in a while in the workplace; simply close your eyes and take some deep breaths.
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Nutrition and stress reduction
It is now scientifically proven that nutrition and stress are interlinked.
Eating nutritious foods is one of the best ways to manage stress. Stress is likely to take an even greater toll on your health if you make poor dietary decisions.
For a person suffering from anxiety, eating right can be difficult because s/he will most certainly crave foods that are high in sugars, fats, and salts. So, a poor diet intake will in time, inflict greater stress on the body.
Do not skip meals. Be sure to eat regularly to maintain normal blood glucose flow in your body. The blood-glucose-level should be neither too high nor too low.
While you should avoid unhealthy, fatty foods, be sure to include flax weed, walnuts, fish oil, etc., in your diet which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Deficiency in these fatty acids can result in anxiety.
A high-fiber diet is known to be an effective stress-beater. So, try to include beans, nuts, oatmeal, vegetables, and fruits in your diet. These foods can you feel more alert and also reduce stress as your gut affects the brain function.
Vegetables, especially leafy greens, are rich in vitamins and minerals that help battle harmful molecules or free radicals produced in your body when you are under stress.
The human body needs an additional supply of protein when under chronic stress. The human body is estimated to require around 0.7-1.8g protein per kg body weight. Therefore, it is recommended to include protein-rich foods such as lentils, beans, chicken, eggs, fish, lean meat, etc. in your daily diet.
Older adults, in particular, are advised to adhere to a protein-rich diet when they are battling stress or illness.
Junk food and stress – How they weigh against each other?
Did you know that stress can make you crave junk food? While you will almost certainly feel better for a while after eating these ‘comfort foods,’ you may actually be worsening the situation.
A recent study has confirmed that diets that are high in saturated fats and calories result in depression.
When you have a bitter argument, the boss is unhappy, a deadline is looming, or you are just buried deep in work or studies, you may reach out for junk food. After all, it’s convenient, and junk food is ready-to-eat within minutes.
People tend to consume potato chips, cookies, chocolates, high-sugar drinks, etc. when they are ‘feeling low.’ But junk foods with high amounts of salt can elevate tension. Sugar-rich junk foods provide a temporary energy spike followed by a sudden drop. Therefore, with less energy at hand to focus on a pending task, you are likely to feel a higher level of stress.
Foods that cause stress
Refined sugary foods such as ice cream, biscuits, pastries, chocolates, etc., provide a quick boost of energy followed by a sugar ‘low.’ It has to do with how sugar affects blood levels in the body.
Simple carbohydrates such as potato chips, bread and pasta, pies and white flour, etc. as well as coffee and junk food act in the same manner. After a spike in blood sugar levels, you will feel a stronger craving for ‘more energy.’
You should also avoid pressed juices. They contain a high concentration of glucose and fructose, but lack slow-digesting fiber. While glucose temporarily spikes the blood sugar level, fructose is believed to change how the brain responds to stress. So, instead of pressed juices, even if they are sweetened with fruits, opt for whole fruits.
Soy-based foods are high in copper; this mineral is known to induce feelings of anxiety, agitation, and panic when its levels rise in the body. So you can bid adieu to tofu! You must eat soy-based foods, you can opt for fermented varieties; they are easier to digest.
Foods that reduce stress and anxiety
The adrenal gland is among the body organs with the highest concentration of vitamin C in the human body. It is required for the production of hormones like cortisol to handle the stress.
Foods rich in vitamin C include various fruits (discussed later in this post) and vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, sweet & white potatoes, spinach, turnip greens, green & red peppers, and tomatoes.
When you are stressed out, it’s likely that Magnesium levels in your body have depleted. Conversely, depletion in Magnesium levels can also make you more susceptible to stress buildup.
Magnesium deficiency is often exhibited by symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, and fatigue as it functions like a spark plug for adrenal glands and plays a role in the production of cortisol.
Magnesium-rich foods include leafy green vegetables, seafood, raw cacao, fruits, tamarind, and cashews.
Chronic stress affects bacterial balance in the gut as well as the immune system. Pre-biotic foods such as onion, garlic, legumes, banana (unripe), whole grains, asparagus, etc., help keep your gut healthy.
Stress relief fruits
Papaya, kiwi, pineapple, strawberries, grapefruit, cantaloupe, guava, and mango are some of the best fruits known to help reduce stress.
Papaya and kiwi are some of the best sources of Vitamin C. Papaya provides around 88 mg Vitamin C per fruit. Kiwi provides roughly 98 mg Vitamin C per 100 grams.
Pineapple is a good source of Vitamin C and B vitamins.
Strawberries have both Vitamin C and Magnesium.
Grapefruit is a rich source of Vitamin C; it is also known to help speed up metabolism, lower cholesterol levels, and reduce fat build-up.
Besides vitamin C and Vitamin B6, cantaloupe will also provide you with other important nutrients such as Potassium, folic acid, niacin, and dietary fibers. Potassium is known to help lower blood pressure.
One cupful of guava can provide enough vitamin C to meet your weekly needs. Guava also has Magnesium present in it.
Besides meeting your daily need for Vitamin C, a cupful of mangos also provides you with fibers and antioxidants.
Other fruits that you may consider for stress relief include cranberries, tangerines, blueberries, raspberries, pomegranate, and lemon.
Depending upon availability, you can include some of these fruits in your daily diet. Do keep in mind that the stress-related benefits mentioned above are applicable to whole fruits (and not processed fruit products).
Other ways to reduce stress
Good quality sleep, daily exercise regimen, meditation, yoga, and regular relaxation are some of the best ways to reduce stress.
Don’t hit the bed late in the night; remove potential distractions such as electronic gadgets from your bedroom.
Try spending at least 10 minutes doing gentle (stretching or breathing) exercises in the morning. Avoid intensive cardio workouts (as a way out of anxiety) if you are an athlete and suffering from chronic stress, as it can increase adrenal insufficiency.
Both meditation and yoga are absolutely free and can be practiced at home. Even 15-minute long sessions, either in the morning or evening, can go a long way in reducing stress and anxiety.
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Remember to allow your body and mind to relax and return to an equilibrium-state every once in a while. Temporary stress-causing disturbances will keep coming around. So, you need to know how to knock off stress on a daily basis and prevent potentially harmful stress build-up, which among other things can result in eating disorders.
You can read a book, go out on a walk, get a massage, chat up with your loved ones, play your favorite musical instrument, or listen to soothing music. You can also spend time outdoors in the nature to beat the stress.
You know what works best for you.