Don’t let stress strain your diet!

Tanya

The education sector is growing by the day and the responsibilities of a teacher are on the rise. Balancing home and work is becoming tougher. This may have been repeated ad nauseam, but it is true that most of us are leading stressful lives.

Science has revolutionized various aspects of life including health care, but the simple truth remains unchanged – prevention is better than cure. Therefore, stress management and healthy and balanced lifestyles are of utmost importance.

Stress is considered to be one of the primary causes for the decrease in the overall health and wellbeing of today’s society. When we are stressed, our body shifts into a mechanism commonly known as the “fight or flight” mode. During this phase, the body assumes it is under attack (even if the actual cause of stress maybe a pressing mental task) and prepares to either fight the attacker or run for life. Our body releases specific hormones, namely adrenaline and cortisol, which shift the body’s focus and temporarily shut down some of the systems essential for our general wellbeing. Systems such as the immune system and the digestive system become secondary concerns when our muscles tense, increasing the heart rate, the blood pressure and the blood sugar. Every organ of the body is put through a lot of strain because the primary concern for the body at this stage is to survive the attack. This is why stress management is important.

After a rough day, one of the most soothing things to do is to come home and settle down with something tasty. Lacking the energy to cook something healthy, we tend to resort to what is packaged and ready. So we begin munching on chips or biscuits and before we know it, we’ve consumed the whole pack! Why do we use food as a stress-reliever? It’s simply because tasty, high calorie fats, sugars, or carbohydrates trigger an immediate emotional shift and act as “comfort foods”. Eating junk food however is actually counter-productive. The feeling of comfort is temporary. Stress-induced cravings actually lead you into a downward spiral of bad eating that leads to an even less ability to deal with stress.

So to get the best of both worlds – reduced stress and comfort foods minus the guilt – you need to indulge in “healthy comfort” foods.

The food we eat plays a big role, not only in our overall health but also in influencing the way we look and feel. Watching what we eat and replenishing lost nutrients can be highly beneficial in combating the effects of prolonged stress on our body. Try and incorporate the following tips in your diet to eat your way out of stress:

  • Never resort to unhealthy comfort foods – processed foods, foods high in fat and sugar, carbonated drinks, etc. – to satisfy your cravings. The phenomenon of stress is linked to the hormone cortisol that causes unexplainable cravings when you’re stressed. Satisfying these cravings will cause spikes in your blood sugar, soon followed by crashes. So instead of relieving stress, these add to the damage (done by the existing stress).
  • Eat foods that are easy on the body and that support the immune system. These typically are foods that are low in fat, oils, salts, and sugar.
  • Incorporating lean protein in your diet can be extremely beneficial. Protein helps your body combat the ill effects of stress as it promotes the production of norepinephrine and dopamine – hormones which cause the brain to reduce stress and increase mental energy, improving your mood as a result. Turn to lean proteins such as legumes, beans (rajma, chana, etc.), chicken, fish, egg whites, yoghurt, etc., when stressed out.
  • It is important to eat small frequent meals to keep your metabolism stable. Eating every 2 hours is optimum as this will ensure your body is never under the stress of processing large meals. This also ensures that the body constantly replenishes itself with nutrients and energy.
  • Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables to ensure your vitamins and mineral levels are maintained. A high fibre diet will ease the stress on your intestine during digestion. Choose fruits over juices, as the latter are high in calories and lack the natural fibre a whole fruit provides. You’d rather bite into a fresh fruit!
  • Eating foods that are high in magnesium can be extremely beneficial as it prevents blood pressure from rising, which is a common effect of stress. Green leafy vegetables like spinach, dried herbs, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, flax seeds, oats, wheat, almonds, cashews, soybean, etc., contain B-complex and a host of other nutrients that calm the nerves.
  • Include whole grains in your daily meals – replace refined flour with a mixture of wheat, millet (ragi), and buckwheat (singada). These complex carbs increase the release of the hormone serotonin which satiates your cravings and signals the brain to reduce stress. Other foods that increase the production of serotonin are bananas, milk (preferably skimmed milk), cheese (opt for cheeses such as goat, feta or cheddar cheese), chicken, dark green veggies and citrus fruits.
  • Avoid caffeine as that only adds to the stress. Instead try a cup of green or herbal tea which will give you loads of antioxidants.
  • Incorporate nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews, peanuts etc.), seeds (pumpkin, flax etc.), oils (flax seed oil, olive oil, sesame seed oil, canola oil), and fish in your diet. These are rich in essential fatty acids such as omega 3 and omega 6, and vitamin E, which help fight some of the damage caused by stress.
  • Every now and then indulge in dark chocolate (about one square) or cocoa powder with skimmed milk. The flavonoids and phenylethylamine present in the cocoa act as mood elevators and anti-depressants.
  • For those with irregular blood sugar, drinking 20-40ml of bitter gourd juice twice a day, for 2 months, helps stabilize the blood sugar and reduce further stress on the body

Stressful jobs tend to evoke a feeling that 24 hours in a day aren’t sufficient. By taking the time to prepare healthy meals and “manage” stress, you will find yourself feeling more energetic and productive. I hope these tips help you live a healthy, balanced and stress-free life while you continue to spread knowledge and shape young minds.

The author is an image management consultant and a professional model based in Mumbai. She can be reached at contact@tanya.org.in.