Stress Relief Through Food Choices

The ability of your body to maintain adequate reserves of energy against the impact of stress depends to a large extent on a well-balanced and nutritionally sound diet. The food you eat, and the way you eat it, play a significant role in your total feeling of physical and mental well-being. A poorly designed and digested diet may counteract many of the benefits you could obtain from other strategies for relieving stress. Individual dietary needs vary a great deal. Read through the suggestions given below and experiment to find your own optimal approach.

  1. Relax at Meals
    The amount of nutrients you absorb from your food is partially determined by your eating habits. If you are tense and eat quickly, your food will not be properly chewed and mixed with saliva. This prevents your body from being able to extract all the necessary nutrients from your food, and adds additional stress on your gastrointestinal tract. Since your appetite takes twenty minutes to slow down and register that you're full, if you eat too quickly you may also eat too much. Slow your meal down by enjoying your surroundings and the conversation. Learn to enjoy the sensations of chewing your food. Begin to think of eating as a process that includes the preparation, tastes, aromas, textures, and environment as well as the meal itself.
  2. Set a Meal Schedule
    A regular schedule for meal time is generally best for the digestive system. Snacking between meals and eating late at night is hard on your body. If you need to snack, try fruits, sliced fresh vegetables, nuts, or whole grain crackers. Plan your snacks ahead to avoid junk.
  3. Listen to your Appetite
    Learn to listen to your body's needs. Are you truly hungry? Many people eat because of boredom, anxiety, or the need for oral gratification. Pay attention to what you're feeling as you reach for food. Since the same part of our brain that regulates our appetite is also linked to the control of our emotions and our sexuality, disordered eating often reflects unbalanced states of emotional distress, such as loneliness or unhappiness. If you feel you are eating more for emotional reasons than for physical nourishment, counseling may be helpful.
  4. Eat Simply
    Read labels, know your ingredients and avoid additives. When food contains excessive fats, chemical preservatives, or by-products from processing, the internal organs--stomach, liver, gallbladder, intestines, and kidneys--have to work harder at their specific tasks. Try to eat fresh, unprocessed whole foods as much as possible.
  5. Avoid Caffeine
    Caffeine is a stimulant which triggers the entire stress response in your body, stimulating the nervous system, the heart, and the respiratory system. Headaches, nervousness, irritability, elevation of blood pressure, and stomach problems can occur even with doses as low as 200-500 mg/day. (Eight ounces of drip coffee contain 220 mg of caffeine; eight ounces of percolated coffee contain 175 mg. Cans of soda pop contain 35-50 mg.) Wake up in the morning with gentle exercise, stretching , or a cool shower and a glass of juice rather than coffee. Instead of a coffee break, try grain beverages and herb teas, or have a big glass of water. Take a short brisk walk and breathe deeply. Keep decaffeinated coffee to a minimum. It is not 100 percent caffeine free and the most common decaffeinated process uses toxic chemicals to remove the caffeine.
  6. Reduce Sugar
    Sugar is a stress-producing food in two ways. When you eat sugar, your body interprets the increased blood sugar level as a sign that you are in a "fight or flight" situation. Your whole body is stimulated and readied for action. This "sugar rush" throws your entire system out of balance, and may produce dramatic swings in energy and fatigue, often known as the “sugar blues.” Reduce your intake of simple sugars as much as possible. If you can't eliminate sugar completely, try to avoid eating sugary foods by themselves, and have your sweets at the end of a meal rich in protein and complex carbohydrates. To counterbalance the harmful effects of sugar and build your energy reserves, increase your intake of fresh whole vegetables, fruits, and grains.
  7. Increase Your Fiber Intake
    Some people experience constipation when under stress. In addition to discomfort, this condition can cause fatigue and toxic build-up in the body. Exercise regularly, drink plenty of fluids, and eat a diet high in roughage. Supplement with bran when necessary.
  8. Drink Plenty of Fluids
    Current research underscores the vital importance of drinking plenty of good quality water each day. Your body is composed of 2/3 water, just like the planet, and every organ needs a sufficient amount of liquid to function properly. Sodium retention can be a stress response for some people, particularly when fluid intake is low. This puts an extra burden on your heart, lungs, kidneys, muscles, skin, and brain! To keep these vital organs in balance and working at optimal levels, researchers recommend drinking six to eight glasses of water each day.
  9. Reduce Salt
    High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a disease that is often related to stress. While some individuals may need medication to control this condition, others may find substantial improvement with lifestyle changes such as relaxation training and dietary changes. Lowering salt consumption helps hypertension in some people. If recommended by your doctor, and as a general preventive measure, reduce your salt intake to below 5 grams per day. Read labels of prepared foods to determine exactly what is in the food you are eating. Try herbs and spices for flavor instead. Once you have cut down on salt, you will find your sensitivity to other tastes increases.
  10. Maintain a Healthy Weight
    The majority of longevity studies indicate that ideal weights for a long life range from 10 pounds underweight up to 5-10 pounds overweight. While obesity is indeed a health and stress hazard, weighing a few extra pounds is actually much healthier than continuously losing and gaining weight through fad diets. Once again, the best guideline here is to avoid extremes, and cultivate the balanced middle way.
  11. Get Enough Vitamins and Minerals
    Under conditions of high stress, the body uses increased amounts of some nutrients, particularly water soluble vitamins and certain minerals. Unless these nutrients are replaced, the body can be rapidly depleted. Taking extra supplements of Vitamin C, B complex, calcium, potassium, zinc, and magnesium is often recommended for prevention and treatment of stress. Include in your diet, on a regular basis, those foods known to be naturally high in these nutrients, such as leafy green vegetables, sea vegetables, whole grains, wheat germ, nutritional or brewer’s yeast, nuts, seeds, and fruits.

  12. Be Aware of Allergies
    Food allergies may be a hidden nutritional stress for some people. Even foods which are nutritionally sound for a majority of people may produce allergic reactions for specific individuals. Symptoms of food allergies might include bloating, nausea, headaches, skin irritation, or irritability. These symptoms may be mild or severe. Onset may occur immediately after eating the food, or may take up to several hours. In some mild allergic reactions, no symptoms will be experienced if the allergic food has not been eaten for three or four days, but will occur if the individual eats the food several days in a row. If you think food allergies may be a problem for you, observe your reactions to different foods and different combinations of foods and consult a physician who understands food allergies for further testing.
  13. Get Enough Variety in Your Diet
    To prepare your bodymind to effectively handle the accelerating stresses of daily life, a moderate balanced diet with plenty of variety is the key. Any diet that emphasizes excessive amounts of any one food or type of food necessarily excludes a broad range of nutrients. Learn to listen to your body's needs, and plan your meals so there is plenty of variety. Include both cooked and raw foods; all colors of vegetables (be sure to include leafy greens); a variety of protein sources; nuts and seeds; and a variety of whole grains, such as brown rice, millet, bulgur, quinoa, oats, buckwheat, and whole wheat.

[Adapted from the book "Living in Balance" by Joel Levey
and Michelle Levey]

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