What to eat when you’re under stress

April 1, 2016 in Leslie's Featured Content

What to eat when you’re under stress

If you soothe your stress with a burger and fries, mac and cheese or a tub of ice cream, it’s time to rethink your coping strategy.  Research suggests that stress combined with a high fat, caloric meal is a double whammy for your waistline, at least for women.  The unfavourable combo can slow your metabolism – the speed at which your body burns calories – and make you hold onto fat.

It’s not news that stress can lead to weight gain by prompting overeating.  Ongoing stress can zap our willpower to make healthy foods choices, trigger emotional eating and drive up cortisol, a stress hormone that increases appetite.

What is news, though, is that stress-related weight gain is not just about excess calories consumed. It appears stress can alter how your body responds to those calories.

A 2014 study from Ohio State University, for example, revealed that women who reported one or more stressful events the previous day – e.g. an argument with a coworker or spouse, work-related pressure, trouble with children – burned 104 fewer calories in the seven hours after a high fat meal compared to women who weren’t stressed.  That may not sound like much but it’s a difference that adds up to nearly 11 pounds over a year.

There’s more.  Women who complained of prior-day stress also burned less fat after eating compared to participants who reported no stressors. They also had higher levels of insulin, a hormone that promotes fat storage.  

These findings provide decent motivation to keep healthy foods close-by when under stress. Eating the right foods when you're stressed out can do more than help manage your waistline, however. Your body’s stress response – it’s ability to deal stress – relies on certain nutrients to work properly.    

Focus on high fibre, carbs

Studies show that when stress-prone individuals are subjected to stress, they fare better eating a high carbohydrate diet versus one that's high in protein. Eating more carbs increased serotonin (a brain chemical that calms and relaxes), reduced stress hormones, improved mental performance and enhanced mood.

When under stress, make whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables the focus of your meals rather than meat and poultry.  High in fibre, these foods also help keep your appetite in check and blood sugar stable.

Boost B vitamins

When faced with stress, the body requires B vitamins to mobilize stored energy and send it to the bloodstream for immediate fuel. Vitamin B6 may also ease psychological stress since it’s used to make serotonin.

The best sources of B vitamins include enriched breakfast cereals, wheat germ, legumes, nuts and seeds, dark green vegetables, lean meat, fish, poultry, milk, and yogurt.  You’ll also find B6 in avocados, baked potatoes and bananas.

Consider a multivitamin or B complex

Chronically-stressed people have been found to have lower levels of nutrients in their body and the extent of these deficiencies was related to the severity and duration of stress.

Taking a multivitamin has been shown to reduce perceived stress, anxiety and fatigue in study participants. Researchers speculate B vitamins are responsible. 

Get more vitamin C

This nutrient is concentrated in the adrenal glands, where it is used to make stress hormones.  Citrus fruit, strawberries, kiwi fruit, cantaloupe, broccoli, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, tomatoes and potatoes are all good sources of vitamin C.  Multivitamins, B complex supplements and anti-stress vitamins also supply vitamin C.

Cut caffeine

If you have high blood pressure, the combination of stress and caffeine can lead to a sharper rise in stress hormones and blood pressure compared to people with normal blood pressure. Switch to decaffeinated coffee, weakly brewed tea or herbal tea.

Limit alcoholic beverages

Despite the fact that many people drink to relieve stress, alcohol actually triggers the release of stress hormones. It’s also dehydrating and interferes with sleep, two factors that can impair physical and mental performance. 

If you must drink during stressful periods, limit yourself to one drink per day (e.g. 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of spirits, or 12 ounces of beer).

All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.