Eating Healthy When You’re Stressed

You probably know this feeling all too well: A deadline looms at work, your social calendar is overbooked, exercise has taken the back burner and—at this same high-intensity time—your child/spouse/family member/friend/pet also needs your undivided attention. Something has to give in times of high stress, and often it’s your own self-care that lapses. There isn’t time to sit down to eat, so you pick off your child’s plate or fit meals in during car rides, while on conference calls—or not at all.

Though you already know that relying on meals and snacks that are high in sugar, fat and salt (common go-to’s when you’re stressed) can have a negative impact on your health, recent research has found that the effect can be even more profound when you’re seriously taxed. A study conducted at the University of California, San Francisco found that highly stressed women whose diets are rich in these “comfort foods” have more belly fat and insulin resistance—factors for heart disease and diabetes—than women who make the same choices but are less tense.

Biological changes that can occur when your stress goes unmanaged therefore play a big role in your health, but so does how stress affects your eating behaviors (which can cause you to overeat even healthy foods, leading to an intake of excess calories). That’s why the following meal-time strategies are especially important when you’re under stress:

Slow Down and Make Time
Eating on the run is one of the most common behaviors we use to fit in meals when we’re busy. “We eat as a secondary activity so often,” says Lisa Powell, M.S., R.D.N., director of nutrition at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “But we need to carve out a little bit of time for our meals. It doesn’t have to be an hour—it can be 15 minutes of focused time where you turn off all of the external stimuli and stress and make eating its own activity.” Book time for lunch, just as you would schedule an important appointment or work meeting. Commit to eating breakfast and dinner before losing yourself in emails or tidying up the house. Our article, Quick and Easy Breakfast on the Run, can help you come up with ideas for simple, healthy a.m. meals.

Invite a Friend
When meals are social, we tend to allow ourselves to enjoy the time away from our various obligations and focus instead on food and friends. If making dinner reservations or hosting guests adds to your stress level, plan instead to meet a coworker for a brown-bag lunch outside, or invite friends for a potluck style meal that doesn’t require time-consuming preparation. Date nights with friends or your spouse are an important way to remind yourself of the celebratory aspects of food too. So consider scheduling at least one social meal per week to help you slow down and enjoy.

Unplug
Remember that your meal should never be secondary to another activity. Eating in front of the television, computer or even a book distracts you from the experience of the meal and can lead to overeating. Eat mindfully, focusing solely on the food in front of you and the company at your table (even if it’s just you and your cat). Think of your meals as an opportunity to recharge not just your body, but your mind as well. “Your meal should nourish you emotionally, spiritually and psychologically,” Powell says. If you pay attention to the flavors and textures of your food, rather than multitasking at the table, you’ll feel more satisfied when the meal comes to an end.

Work to Address Emotional Eating
There are certain types of foods that we inevitably turn to in times of stress, and they are not the ones that are going to recharge our bodies effectively. Highly processed comfort foods, caffeine and alcohol are all best to avoid when you’re stressed. Popular comfort foods leave you feeling less energized, while caffeine actually increases the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. A few glass of wine after a long day at work may calm your nerves initially, but over-consumption of alcohol can leave you feeling tired and run-down, and disturb your sleep, further contributing to high levels of stress.

Energize Your Meal
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, a simple plate of balanced food can help you regain the mental calm you need to move ahead. Focus on lean protein, whole-food carbohydrates and healthy fats (mono- and polyunsaturated) at every meal. Incorporate snacks like yogurt smoothies, fruit and nut bars, vegetable-based soups and small amounts of cheese, which won’t spike your blood sugar. If you’re too busy to cook, choose a restaurant that emphasizes vegetables in their dishes, and avoid fried foods, white pasta and red meat.

Set the Stage
Making a ritual out of mealtime affirms that you value both the meal and yourself enough to realize that this time is sacred. Plate your microwaved lunch and use a proper fork and knife. Clear the clutter off your desk if you can’t make it outside or to the cafeteria. Shut down your computer screen and put your phone away. Finally, choose a behavior to signal that mealtime has begun, separating you from whatever else is going on in your day. “A cleansing breath or visualization, or saying grace helps shift your focus internally,” Powell says. “Creating that space for gratitude can change the way you approach the eating experience.” Taking a moment to switch from whatever you may be doing into mealtime ensures that this valuable time you’ve set aside for yourself isn’t squandered.

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