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Eating Healthy When You’re Stressed

Self-care is often the first thing to go during times of high stress, and with the uncertain times we’re facing, eating well is more important now than ever. 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 food choices, but are less tense in their daily lives. Biological changes that can occur when your stress goes unmanaged play a big role in your health, but so does how stress affects your eating behaviors. It 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:

Making time to eat can be one of the biggest challenges, even now while we’re all at home. “We eat as a secondary activity so often,” says Lisa Powell, MS, RDN, director of nutrition at Canyon Ranch 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 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.

Even if you can’t be physically together, meals can still be social. When meals are a communal event, we allow ourselves to enjoy the time away from our various obligations and focus instead on food and friends. Schedule time to cook a meal with friends over a virtual platform like Zoom or Google Hangouts. You can plan to make the same meal together, or simply make what you each have together. Virtual date nights with friends or family 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.

Remember that your meal should never be secondary to another activity. Eating in front of the TV or reading 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 the company is calling in from afar). 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.

There are certain types of foods 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 couple of glasses of wine after a long day may calm your nerves initially, but overconsumption of alcohol can leave you feeling tired and run-down, and disturb your sleep, further contributing to high levels of stress.

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 overwhelmed to cook, order takeout from a restaurant that emphasizes vegetables in their dishes, and avoid fried foods, white pasta and red meat.

Making a ritual out of mealtime affirms that you value both the meal and yourself enough to make this time is sacred. Plate your microwaved lunch and use a proper fork and knife. Clear the clutter off your table if it’s now a work-from-home station. 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 thoughts of gratitude can help shift your focus internally,” Powell says. Taking a moment to switch from whatever you may be doing into mealtime ensures that the time you’ve set aside for yourself isn’t squandered.

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