There’s stress eating, and then there’s eating to manage stress. What’s the difference?

We all experience stress in varying degrees every, single day. Stress can come from work, the home, our daily commute, our trip to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment, and from almost every aspect of our lives, in fact. How we manage stress – be it mild or extreme, or occasional or chronic – directly affects our health. Conversely, our health status also influences our stress levels, and so does our food choices.

A lot of people cope with stress by overeating or indulging in sinful foods. These practices may temporarily alleviate stress, and only in so far as stress eating is a way of letting off steam; but the adverse effects to our health and the feelings of guilt and displeasure with ourselves will actually end up causing us more stress.

Put your feet up. Loosen up. Chill out. Keep calm. These words are meant to help us when we’re under stress, but they’re easier said than done. We can meditate; think positive thoughts; do something physical; or go to sleep, but a lot of times these options are not always readily available to us in times of stress. One of the best ways to effectively handle stress is through healthy eating; and while it may sound like a New Age belief, there’s actually a lot of science behind the practice of eating healthy for stress management.

But first…

Why We Should Avoid Stress Eating

Stress eating is a counterproductive quick-fix that can only aggravate the problem.

Studies have linked chronic stress to an increased risk for stroke. Stress also weakens our immune system, causes us to lose sleep, and compromises our health in many other ways. So the last thing we want to do is to compromise our health further by eating unhealthily.

Stress eating, which often involves lots of sugary and/or fatty foods, only offer temporary and, at the most, partial satisfaction. But their adverse effects on the body last longer. Especially when done habitually, stress eating eventually leads to poor health, which then translates into poor performance of the most important and, often, stressful activities. And when we perform poorly, we experience more stress, which cause us to indulge in more stress eating. The unhealthy cycle continues and worsens both our health and stress-levels. Sooner or later, we will fall ill or, worse, develop a serious health condition.

The immediate effects of stress eating on our body are just as bad. With sugary foods, for example, the spike in our energy levels may spur us to do more tasks. But after an hour or two, our energy levels plummet and we feel hungrier and more exhausted. Stress also already causes an increase in our glucose levels, and consuming more sugar will only increase our risk for developing diabetes.

Junk food also increases stress because these contain very little of the vitamins and minerals that the body needs to function properly under stressful conditions.

People who resort to drinking lots of caffeine, which contain neuro-stimulators, to keep them awake and energized also heighten their anxiety which, in turn, heighten stress levels. Both the caffeine and the increased anxiety and stress often lead to poor quality sleep and even insomnia. Carbonated drinks can lead to acidosis when the carbon dioxide and lactates build up inside the body, and the condition also aggravates stress.

The inevitable energy drain that happens after consuming too much sugar and caffeine eventually leads to poor focus, an inability to stay alert, and lack of motivation. In the long run, stress eating causes more health problems and more stress – and these, combined, lead to long-term diseases that could even prove fatal.

What To Eat To Manage Stress

Unlike stress eating, eating to manage stress involves the right indulgence in the kinds of foods that directly and positively affect the body’s stress hormones.

Stress causes hormonal changes, so the key to managing stress is to manage these hormonal changes. Avoiding stress is also a good idea, but this isn’t always possible. What we can control, however, are the ways that we can manage our stress; and one of the most effective ways to do this is through eating stress-busting foods.

Eating healthy, comfort food, for example, can raise serotonin levels in our brain to help make us calmer. Or we can eat foods that help reduce the levels of adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones. So what stress-busting foods should we have in our arsenal?

Mood and Serotonin Boosters

  • Complex carbohydrates, like oatmeal, breakfast cereal, and whole-grain pastas and breads. These work more effectively and are healthier than simple carbs because their effects last longer.
  • Vitamins B and E help shore up the immune system and make the body more resilient when stress comes busting through the door. Choose natural sources, such as almonds, instead of vitamin supplements.
  • Yogurt has healthy bacteria, calcium, and other minerals that promote a healthy gut, which helps prevent digestive problems (a common side-effect of stress), and also helps alter mood swings (which commonly occur during stressful situations).
  • A light, bedtime snack to increase levels of serotonin for better quality sleep.

Stress Hormone Sluggers

  • Vitamin C-rich foods, like oranges, quickly normalize cortisol and blood pressure levels.
  • Foods that are high in magnesium, like spinach and other green and leafy vegetables, as well as salmon and soybeans are great choices to help combat the fatigue and headaches that usually accompany and worsen stress.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids in fish, such as tuna, mackerel, and salmon, can help counter spikes in stress hormone levels.
  • Chamomile and black tea are known for their naturally calming effect and specifically affect cortisol levels.
  • Foods rich in potassium, such as bananas and avocados, effectively lower blood pressure levels in times of stress.
  • The calcium in skim or low-fat milk provides comfort by alleviating mood swings and anxiety.

Increasing levels of endorphin, a feel-good chemical, in the body though aerobic activity is also a great way to manage stress.

Additionally, the physical exertion involved is a means to ease tension and release anxiety, frustration, anger, and other negative feelings associated with stress.

Stress hormones, when not properly managed, can take a toll on the body over time – increased blood pressure, digestive problems, and a weakened immune system are just some of the health problem that can be linked to chronic stress. With a healthy diet, these problems can be reversed. But it’s important that we make an effort to manage stress soon after its onset to prevent long-term, adverse health effects.

Stay Healthy and Stress-Free

Healthy nutrition is the key to living a relatively stress-free life!

They say having a healthy mindset is the answer to stress. But mind over matter does not always work, and not for lack of trying. Stress causes changes inside the body that directly affect how we think and feel; and, while we can think positive thoughts and try to convince ourselves that we are calm, these changes often require more specific actions to counter them.

If we already enjoy good health through healthy eating, we are less likely to experience and succumb to stress compared to those with poor diet and are of poor health. A body whose daily nutritional needs are always met is more equipped to deal with stressful situations than a body that’s lacking in important nutrients. Having a healthy, balanced diet means always having the energy, focus, and overall stability (mental, emotional, and physiological) no matter what situation we are put in.