Stress. It’s the “wallpaper of the 21st century.” Seriously, take a minute to ask anyone—including yourself—how they’re doing. Chances are you’ll hear words like “busy,” ”rushed,” or “swamped.” You know the drill; these are just ways that folks communicate that they’re stressed. Stress is ubiquitous, and for most people, it serves as the backdrop of their lives.
Make no mistake about it, some stress is important. It’s called eustress, and we wouldn’t get better in any area of life without it (e.g., learn, get stronger, grow). Good stress is short-lived, infrequent, is over quickly, can be part of a positive life experience, inspires you to action, and leaves you off better than you were before.
On the other hand, too much ongoing stress can be damaging to your health and your life in several ways. Stress can negatively affect:
- Mood and feelings of wellbeing
- Energy levels and focus
- Brain health and memory formation
- Cardiovascular function
- Carbohydrate management and metabolic function
- Sexual function
That’s quite the laundry list, but that’s not all. Too much stress can also wreak havoc on your waistline by affecting appetite, food choices, eating behaviors, and even through biological processes—increasing the body’s propensity to store belly fat.
Nearly everyone has experienced stress-induced eating, which typically involves high-sugar, high-fat foods. These “comfort foods” lead to strong rewarding effects and reinforce snacking and overeating. This pattern of emotional eating tends to lead to a negative, vicious, perpetuating cycle of overeating and weight gain, followed by restriction, which again leads to overeating and weight gain.
The good news is that there are numerous healthy foods that can help ease stress, and here are some of our favorites.
Dark chocolate is rich in cocoa polyphenols, which have been shown to have a potent stress-relieving effect. Studies have shown that consumption of dark chocolate can reduce stress in highly-stressed individuals. What’s more, consuming chocolate lowers perceived stress and decreases levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol.
Cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, anchovies, and sardines, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which boost mood and ease anxiety and stress. In one study, researchers from France found that three weeks of omega-3 supplementation significantly blunted cortisol and sympathetic nervous system activity when participants were challenged with a mental task.
Kiwifruit, oranges, grapefruit, pineapples and berries are excellent sources of vitamin C, which studies suggest can curb stress and fortify the immune system. In one study, German researchers found that, when faced with a stressful situation (i.e., public speaking), healthy young adults who supplemented with vitamin C experienced reduced blood pressure, a decreased stress response, and significant reductions in the hormone cortisol.
Spinach and leafy greens are great sources of magnesium, which regulates cortisol and calms the nervous system. Research has shown that supplementation with magnesium can reduce cortisol levels when study participants are faced a stressful challenge. These veggies are also excellent sources of several B vitamins (e.g., B2, B6, Folate), and supplementation with B vitamins has been shown to lead to improved ratings of stress, mental health, and vigor as well as improved cognitive performance when faced with intense mental processing tasks.
Nuts (e.g., cashews, almonds) and seeds (e.g., pumpkin, sesame, sunflower) are also good sources of magnesium as well as zinc, two minerals that are important for regulating the body’s stress response. Another stress-easing property of nuts and seeds is their crunchiness, and researchers have shown that chewing is an effective behavior for coping with stress.
Chewing gum does more than freshen breath. In a randomized controlled trial published in the journal Physiology & Behavior, Australian researchers found that chewing gum prior to a stressful task significantly reduce anxiety, stress, and cortisol levels and led to significantly better alertness and performance on the task.
Smart carbs promote the release of serotonin, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter that soothes, calms, and reduces anxiety. Along these lines, research also suggests that consuming some unrefined carbohydrates may improve sleep quality and how long it takes to fall asleep. Eating carbohydrates also naturally decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which serves primarily to increase and maintain levels of blood glucose.
Instead of reaching for potato chips or junk food next time you’re feeling stressed, try some of these foods. Not only will they help combat stress, you’ll also be doing your waistline a favor.