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Stress and Nutrition

Gayle Baingo, R.D.

What does stress have to do with diet? Plenty. When tensions get worse in one aspect of life, it’s not unusual for other areas to seem worse also. This can lead to a breakdown in behavior that is normally under control, such as the diet. However, with small positive steps, this destructive cycle can be broken.

When day-to-day life seems chaotic, it is tempting to forget about a balanced diet by skipping meals or eating anything. Yet, when a body does not get the balance of nutrients it needs, a person may end up trying to do more with less energy, which may increase the feelings of stress. Even low-fat foods like bagels and pretzels don’t constitute a high-energy diet on their own.

People can eat quickly prepared foods if they are in a time crunch, but should aim for a combination of grain products – such as bread and pasta, and vegetables or fruit, along with a modest amount of protein, like dairy, lean meat or beans. It can be as easy as choosing a turkey sandwich topped with an assortment of raw veggies with fresh fruit on the side, or having vegetarian chili and whole-wheat crackers for dinner. These simple meals supply adequate nutrition just as well as more time-consuming meals.

It’s good to set aside time to eat meals at a slower pace which allows tasting and savoring the food. The 15 or 20 minutes it takes to put aside work and other distractions will be more than compensated for by a noticeable energy boost. Enjoying quiet time or peaceful music while eating or sharing the time with someone else, can make the meal a memorable one too.

Stress also can increase a yearning for extra snacks and high-fat comfort foods. Healthy snacks are an important part of good eating, so individuals should try to make good snack choices. Snacking when not really hungry does not provide more energy in the long run – it only gives a short-term energy boost, which leaves people feeling tired after their blood-sugar drops.

When people are worn out from the stress of trying to do too much, they often turn to sugar, caffeine or vitamins to increase energy and help them function. Sweets and caffeine-containing products may be enjoyed occasionally, but it’s best to avoid consuming them every day or energy levels may experience huge dips and surges. A walk around the block or a stretching session will most likely provide the needed energy. Also, there is no evidence that emotional stress increases a person’s vitamin needs. If people focus on simple ways to get balanced nutrition, they will get all of the vitamins and other nutrients their body requires. In the end, for the most dramatic effect on energy, set aside enough time to get an adequate amount of sleep.

Experts say that stress is a choice. A person can either decide to not worry about things beyond their control, or they can choose to stress and eat poorly. Every person should set priorities to make the most of their time and let go of the rest. And when pressures in life increase, simplifying an eating routine to save time is okay, but one should not give up on the good nutrition that can help in stressful times.

Gayle Baingo, R.D., is a registered dietitian at Flagstaff Medical Center. Information in this article was provided by the American Cancer Society.