Stress and diet


Step 1: Understanding the relationship between stress and diet
Some stress might be good; and is called ambition, drive and performance. But, when stress becomes uncontrolled, our bodies suffer the consequences in more way than one.

The body's natural response to cope with stress is elevated adrenaline levels, and thus gearing the body for quick-action, fast-thinking and lots of available energy for running away from or fighting the threat. Nowadays, we suffer more from situational stress (deadlines, financial fears, emotional problems) than from physical stress. Yet, we feel the physical effects of adrenaline: a faster heart beat, higher blood pressure, increased utilisation of energy and blood-sugar fluctuations, aggression and irritability, sleep disturbances, compromised immunity, and appetite changes.

It is not merely poor willpower driving us towards eating badly when we are stressed; it has a physiological basis. If we increase our blood-sugar levels with sweet things and carbohydrate-rich foods, we manipulate the chemicals in our brains so that we produce more serotonin (the 'calm' chemical).

Soon the problem becomes two-fold: firstly, the food we choose to increase serotonin is usually rich in hidden fats as well, so there is an increase in production of serotonin, and of fats entering the blood. Secondly, due to the stress response, our bodies have produced more cortisol than usual. This, apart from causing stomach disturbances and increased proneness to infection, causes a disturbed insulin activity. The fats which we unknowingly ingest in these comfort-eating episodes, are stored all the more easily because of the presence of cortisol.

The slowing metabolism of people over 40 makes them more vulnerable to stress, which releases hormones that stimulate both appetite and the storage of fat.

Step 2: Adopting healthy habits

  • 1. Do relaxation exercises.
  • 2. Exercise regularly – at least 20-30 minutes every day. Not only will you reduce stress, you'll also help your heart and lungs and otherwise improve your health.
  • 3. Avoid overuse of alcohol, food or drugs.
  • 4. Learn to prioritise and set realistic, attainable goals.
  • 5. Improve organisational and time-management skills.
  • 6. Don’t skip meals.
  • 7. Don’t eat to beat stress. Rather follow a balanced diet.
  • 8. Take a little time off to make a list of the foods you require (ready-to-eat high-fibre cereal, low-fat yoghurt, fruit juice, low-fat milk, lean meat, etc) and buy them once a week.
  • 9. Keep a store of low-energy snacks handy.

Step 3: Understanding the basic principles of a stress-combating diet

  • Prevent low blood sugar – don’t skip meals. Eat regular, healthy, small meals.
  • Keep a store of low-energy snacks handy such as carrot and celery sticks, unbuttered popcorn, chewing gum, rice cakes spread with Marmite and the odd hard sweet to satisfy your sweet cravings.
  • Sip away your stress: chamomile, lemon balm, lavender, valerian herbal teas, together with a spoonful of honey soothes frazzled nerves.
  • Eat calming foods: tryptophane, an amino acid, boosts the formation of serotonin, the “feel good”, calming brain chemical. Unrefined carbohydrates, nuts and bananas are rich in tryptophane.
  • Energy boosting foods: small amounts of protein (cheese, eggs, chicken, meat) contain the amino acid tryptamine that can give you a boost when stress tires you out. Take small ready prepared portions to work.
  • Avoid refined starches like white bread, pasta, rice and potatoes.
  • High-fibre, whole-grain alternatives break the cycle that stimulates hunger. Fruits, vegetables, low-fat yoghurt and cottage cheese work, too.
  • Eat fat free foods so that you don’t run the risk of fat gain.

The glycaemic index (GI)
Using carbohydrates wisely, is the key. We use the GI, which refers to how quickly the carbohydrates 'dissolve' into sugars. Thus, the carbohydrates which dissolve very quickly (high GI carbohydrates) shoot the blood sugar level up, thereby eliciting a response of calm, but also of increasing the chances of storing any fat that was included in the meal. These are some of the high GI foods available:

  • mielie pap
  • sweets
  • bread (brown, white or wholewheat)
  • potatoes
  • cornflakes, etc.

If, however, we eat the lower GI carbohydrates, which dissolve into sugar much more slowly, such as pasta, Basmati rice, beans and sweet potato, then we stabilise our blood sugar levels. Thus, we feel much better in terms of mood, we reduce the risk of storing fats that may inadvertently have been included in the meal, and we also help our bodies lose unwanted fats.

(Dr I.V. van Heerden, registered dietician)

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