7 Ways to De-Stress Your Diet

Nutritional tricks to help you stave off stress.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Which comes first: Do our high-stress lives lead us to eat badly, or do our bad eating habits make us more likely to feel stressed out?

The way I see it, the chicken AND the egg both come first, depending on the situation. Stress can lead some people to crave (and overeat) junk food. In other cases, a diet rich in sugar, unhealthy fats, caffeine, etc., can help set up some people to feel more physically stressed.

That means we need to work on both ends of the stick. We should find new ways to deal with the stress in our lives; and we should eat a healthy diet, rich in the nutrients that help keep moods up and stress down.

So before we get down to the nitty-gritty of food and stress, keep these two suggestions in mind:

  • Find new ways to cope with life's stresses. Whenever possible, plug in healthy coping strategies, like journaling; regular exercise; massage; yoga or Pilates classes; or support groups or counseling sessions that help you work through negative thoughts in a productive and healthy way.

  • Find ways to decrease the stress in your life. Get enough sleep, quit smoking, establish a great support system, strive for balance in the different aspects of your life (family, work, personal interests), and find a sense of purpose in your life.

Food, Hormones, and Stress

One key to the link between food and mood is serotonin, which I have fondly nicknamed "the happy hormone." Serotonin is made in the brain from the amino acid tryptophan, with the help of certain B vitamins.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, so you might think that foods high in protein would increase levels of tryptophan, but the opposite is true. Tryptophan has to fight with other amino acids to cross the blood-brain barrier and get into the brain. Since tryptophan is the weaker of the amino acids, generally only a small amount makes it into the brain when other amino acids are present.

But here's the catch. When you eat a meal that's almost all carbs, this triggers insulin to clear the other amino acids from your bloodstream. That leaves tryptophan with a smooth passage into the brain. This, in turn, boosts the serotonin level in the brain. High serotonin levels help boost your mood and help you feel calm.

The other main stress/food hormone is cortisol. When you're stressed, your body releases more cortisol into your bloodstream. Cortisol sends appetite-stimulating neurotransmitters into overdrive, while lowering your levels of serotonin. This combination programs your brain to crave carbohydrate-rich foods. And when you eat the carb-rich foods, it boosts serotonin levels, which makes you feel calm again.

How to De-Stress Your Diet

But before you rush out for that carb fix, here are six tips to help you give yourself the nutritional edge against stress:

1. Keep It Balanced

A balanced, nutrient-rich eating plan is your single best dietary defense against stress. There is more and more scientific evidence suggesting that what we eat contributes to mood, stress level, brain function, and energy level.

2. Keep Healthy Carbs Handy

Giving your body the carbs it craves during stress doesn't have to mean filling up with empty calories from sugar and white-flour products. Complex or "whole" carbohydrate foods (like whole grains, fruits, and veggies) give you carbs along with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals galore.

A study in 1995 (before the current low-carb hysteria) looked at obese women who said they overate carbohydrates when stressed. Researchers assigned the women to either a carb-rich diet or protein-rich diet -- both with 1,350 daily calories -- for seven weeks. Interestingly, more women lost weight on the carbohydrate-rich diet. But perhaps more important, those on the higher-carb diet reported having fewer carbohydrate cravings and more energy.

3. Omega-3s to the Rescue

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish as well as some plant foods, like canola oil and ground flaxseed. Although their uplifting effect on mood hasn't been proven, several studies have suggested a connection. This makes scientific sense because:

  • In areas of the world where more omega-3s are consumed, depression is less common.
  • Depression rates are high among alcoholics and women who have recently given birth. Both groups tend to be deficient in omega-3s.
  • People with depression have been found to have lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their red blood cells compared with others.

4. Cut the Caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant. It stimulates the bowels and bladder, and it seems to increase your energy level for the short term. But what goes up must come down, and in people sensitive to caffeine, it can come crashing down.

Larry Christensen, PhD, a researcher with the University of South Alabama, found in recent studies that when people who are sensitive to caffeine eliminated it from their diets, their moods and energy levels improved significantly.

Don't know if you are one of the caffeine-sensitive people? Try avoiding caffeine for a few weeks and see if there's a difference in the way you feel. It can be hard to go cold turkey, so taper off your intake a cup at a time until you're down to none.

5. Don't Be a Breakfast-Skipper

When people eat breakfast, they tend to have more consistent moods and are less likely to suffer food cravings later in the day.

6. Eat Smaller, More Frequent Meals

This will provide your body with a consistent supply of energy throughout the day and help you avoid feeling tired or overly hungry.

7. Don't Expect Alcohol to Help

Alcohol is not a healthy or effective way to relax or relieve stress. Though many people believe the opposite is true, alcohol is actually a depressant. And overdrinking only adds to the stress in your life.

SOURCES: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, September 1995, Supplement, Vol. 95, Number 9. Reproduction Nutrition Development, May-June 2004, Family Practice News, Aug. 1, 2004.

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According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

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