If you’re like most people, you would like to find a way to reduce the amount of stress you feel. Stress is the body’s reaction to danger. The problem is that—biologically speaking—our bodies can’t tell the difference between a life-threatening situation, such as a charging bear or an oncoming truck, and the kind of everyday stress that is an ordinary part of life, such as a presentation at work or a traffic jam.
The bad news is that the modern American diet is very likely to increase the amount of physical stress your body experiences. The combination of emotional stress and dietary stress is a toxic one. If you want to give your body a break, it is essential to minimize the stress-inducing foods in your diet and add foods that can help you maintain good physical and mental health.
Food Habits That Contribute to Stress
Let’s start by looking at the food habits that can increase stress and put a strain on your body.
- You might need a morning cup of coffee to get started, but taking in too much caffeine can wreak havoc with your nervous system. It can also interrupt your sleep, and a lack of sleep can contribute to stress and anxiety.
- Sugar has inflammatory properties that can put a great deal of stress on your body if you’re not careful. The average American eats far more sugar than is necessary, and the resultant inflammation can tax the immune system and lead to fatigue and irritability.
- On the flip side, eating a diet that is very low in carbohydrates can also be a problem. Carbohydrates are not the enemy. Your brain uses carbs as its first source of energy, and if your diet doesn’t contain enough of them you may end up feeling crabby and mentally foggy. Also, restricting carbs can leave you deficient in important, mood-regulating vitamins.
- A very low fat diet may leave you feeling unsatisfied and angry. Eating healthy fat helps keep you feeling satiated, and if you don’t get enough, the result may be a short temper and a tendency to overeat.
- A diet that is too high in salt can contribute to high blood pressure, and ultimately, to cardiovascular problems as well. Most people can tolerate about 2,300 milligrams of salt per day, but you should check with your doctor to see if reducing your sodium intake might be beneficial to you.
- Finally, eating a diet that consists mostly of processed or fast food can combine many of these issues, contributing to a surplus of stress that can lead to weight gain as well as to diseases such as diabetes. Most processed foods —meaning most things that are sold in boxes, jars, or cans—are very high in added sugar, added salt, and unhealthy trans fat.
As you can see, the food you eat can have a direct impact on how you feel, both physically and emotionally. Fortunately, making some simple changes in your diet can help.
The Low-Stress Diet
If you want to reduce stress and give your body a break, here are some things to try.
- Reduce the amount of sugar you eat. Food manufacturers have to list the amount of sugar contained in their products. Look at the total carbs included in a food as well as the amount of sugar. Remember, all carbs are sugars, but all sugars are not created equal. The difference between the total carbs in a food and the total amount of sugar will tell you how much sugar has been added to it. The best foods to eat are those with little or no added sugar. Naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in whole fruits and vegetables, are necessary and healthy to eat.
- Minimize caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening. Too much caffeine can affect your hormonal balance and also disrupt your sleep. Getting enough sleep is essential if you want to minimize stress.
- Add foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acid to your diet. Omega-3 plays an important role in mood regulation and can help fight depression and anxiety. Good choices include cold water fish such as mackerel, cod and salmon, as well as flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans.
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Many of us don’t get enough water, relying on unhealthy beverages like soda for hydration. Your body needs water, which it uses to free itself of waste materials and toxins. Try to drink at least 64 ounces of water per day.
- Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day—more if possible. A plant-based diet has been shown to reduce stress on the body. Make sure to choose a variety of plants with different colors —the colors are often representative of nutritional content. For example, many plants with a yellow or orange hue are high in Vitamin A. Whole vegetables and fruits are also a rich source of dietary fiber, which help keep your digestive system working properly. It is important to note that fresh veggies are best, but frozen vegetables—which are minimally processed—make a good alternative in a pinch.
- Eliminate trans fat from your diet completely. Trans fat is any fat that should be liquid at room temperature but has been transformed to a solid. Examples include margarine, vegetable shortening, and any partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oil. Instead, choose unsaturated fats like olive oil and canola oil, or healthy saturated fats like meat and other products from grass-fed animals.
- Instead of high-sugar treats, eat a small amount of dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao. Chocolate has been shown to have mood-elevating properties, and eating it may help to reduce stress.
We all trip up sometimes, but if the majority of your diet follows these rules, you will be doing a great deal to reduce your stress and maintain your health.Opinions expressed here by Contributors are their own.