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How to fight stress with your diet

They really exist. And they’re not the traditional comfort foods we might want to retreat to when we’re under stress. (That would be too easy, right?)
Not surprisingly, the best foods have some effect beyond calming your nerves. They are typically unprocessed, (or have very little processing) and are generally found on the outside aisles of your favorite grocery store. Here is just a sample of some the best:
  • Fruits: The best natural “sweets” are probably some the fruits you love anyway. Bananas provide energizing B6 and magnesium; and strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries are an excellent substitute for fat and sugar-laden candy bars that will just leave you feeling overfull, and ultimately, drained of energy. Fresh fruit just has a tonic, energizing effect that’s hard to beat.
  • Vegetables: The “crunch” of carrots, along with their sweet/savory taste, may not immediately resolve your stress, but they are a great stand-in for the myriad less-healthy options that surround you in most workplaces. Take a small container of these orange wonders with your for break-time snacking. Spinach is one of the great iron-providers of the vegetable world. Add a little bit to your homemade salads, for a brain and energy boost to help get you through those busy days.
  • Nuts: Sure, you’ll get some fat from seeds and nuts, but in general, it’s a far better form of fat than anything from a vending machine. Try to stock up while you’re at the grocery store, and bring in your own almonds, cashews, and walnuts from home. That way, you can avoid the really salty stuff. Sprinkle them on salads, add chopped or slivered varieties to low-fat yogurt, and you have a perfect brain-boosting and nerve-calming breakfast or mid-day snack.
  • Lean proteins: Protein sources – as long as they aren’t laded with saturated fat – are excellent brain boosters. Since stress, anxiety, and confusion tend to go together as a group, getting some lean protein (vegetarian sources are good too!) is a good way of being proactive against daily stress. Consider chicken, fish, lean cheese, tofu, and other “main courses” in your lunch, and you’ll feel more energized and confident through the rest of the day.
What to avoid when you’re feeling stressed.
  • Sugary foods: Anything high in sugars or other sweeteners that burn rapidly through your system – providing a temporary rush – and then leaves you feeling tired is a sure way to feel more jittery and run-down.
  • Caffeine: Be careful about how often you fuel up on coffee or caffeinated sodas. Caffeine isn’t necessarily bad for you in the same way that saturated fats, or too much salt, or sweeteners are, but it definitely affects mood. And it doesn’t take much to get hooked, either. If you feel like you’ve been overreacting to things lately or feeling more pressure than seems warranted, check your caffeine intake and start to cut it back a bit. Give it time. Do you usually have three cups a day? Start by cutting back to two, and go from there. Before long, you’ll wonder why you needed so much to get going.
  • Salts and saturated fats: It’s one thing if you’re at the state fair, but if you turn to salty, fried, or fatty foods when you’re stressed, you’re just bringing on more trouble. These foods might fill you up, but you’ll also wind up dehydrated, feeling more run down, and of course, get more calories than you need.
Keeping healthy habits is a challenge when we’re stressed. But it’s important during those difficult times to stick with a sensible diet. Don’t be tempted into believing that the very short-term kick that comes with junk food and jitter-inducing coffee and soda will make you feel better. You’ll appreciate your natural ability to bounce back from trying situations when you stay with the foods that do the most good for body and mind.
Published September 13, 2010
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