Nutrition for Stressful Times
By Leah Kleinschrodt, MS, RD, LD
March 15, 2022
During times of intense stress and emotional upheaval, the last thing most people want to do is to spend precious time and energy on meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking. In fact, it’s not uncommon for food in general to take a back seat. Stress can zap our appetite, cause stomachaches, heartburn, or other digestive upset. Stress can also cause us to crave sugar, junk foods, and often our favorite comfort foods.
We aren’t strangers to stress and uncertainty, especially the last two years. Experiencing a global pandemic, world events, and the many everyday stressors that come from being human with people we love and dreams we care about, we have a lot to navigate!
One thing is certain though, our bodies need nourishment to support our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. As a dietitian, I understand that during times of emotional stress, it is very difficult to focus on food that will support your body and brain. However, you can actually use food to help manage your stress levels. Let me explain…
Balanced Eating To Help Stress Levels
Food and nutrition can be broken down into three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Protein supports our muscle mass and is the building block for our brain chemicals that regulate appetite and emotions. Our best sources of protein come from beef, chicken, turkey, fish, and eggs. Healthy fats stabilize our blood sugar and are crucial for our brain health, as the brain is about 70% fat. Healthy fats include butter, coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, nuts/seeds, and olives. Colorful carbohydrates, such as vegetables and fruits, supply us with the antioxidants we need to repair and regenerate cells that have been damaged by prolonged stress, high sugar intake, excess alcohol, and infections.
When we put this trio of macronutrients together (protein, fat and carbohydrate) as a meal or snack, we call that balanced eating. Balanced eating is so important during times of stress, emotional trauma, and uncertainty because it keeps our blood sugar levels stable (see chart below) throughout the day—and when our blood sugar levels are balanced, we FEEL much more stable. We have sustained energy, even-keel moods, focus, patience, and the ability to process feelings and reflect. We also sleep deeper and more soundly. All very important things when we are under stress.
To learn more about stress, check out our online class Stress, Food, and You.
How Blood Sugar Effects Stress
Blood sugar imbalance is experienced after eating junk foods or foods high in sugar. These foods cause our blood sugar levels to rise very high, which might lead to brain fog or feeling stiff and achy. Then an hour or two later, blood sugar comes crashing down. Blood sugar levels can also crash if we go too long without eating. Most people know what low blood sugar feels like: hunger or “hangry”, sugar and salt cravings, low energy/fatigue (especially around 3PM in the afternoon), irritability or impatience, feeling overwhelmed, increased anxiety and depression levels, and even panic attacks.
Physiologically speaking, having rollercoaster blood sugars is THE MOST STRESSFUL thing our bodies can experience. This is why eating simple, whole foods in balance can be such a powerful tool during stressful times, as well as during the healing process.
What Balanced Eating Looks Like
Here’s an example of what a day of balanced eating may look like:
- Breakfast – 2-3 eggs + spinach sautéed in real butter + ½ cup of roasted sweet potatoes
- Lunch – bowl of chili (2 cups) + carrot sticks + sour cream or avocado slices for chili topping
- Snack – small protein shake OR beef stick + ½ apple + 2 Tbsp nut butter
- Dinner – salmon fillet or steak + 2 cups of roasted broccoli & cauliflower + ½ cup wild rice + butter topping for veggies and rice
- Bedtime snack – ½ cup berries or ½ peach + 2-3 Tbsp heavy cream
We have many more free tips, ideas, sample balanced meal plans, recipes and relevant podcast episodes at www.weightandwellness.com.
Getting Enough Sleep To Help Stress Levels
Focusing on the food you give your body is one of the areas of stress that we can control when times feel uncontrollable. Sleep is another one, which can greatly impact stress levels. Balanced eating is one of the most important steps to increase energy, so start there first. However, sometimes we may have so much stress in our lives that food choices alone may not be enough.
During times like those, it can be difficult to turn off the mind and relax at bedtime, leading to insomnia and sleep deprivation. Without sufficient sleep, it can be a struggle to get through the day, with cravings and lack of energy making healthy eating feel like an even bigger challenge. While we may not be able to force our bodies to get 7 ½ - 9 hours of sleep each night which feels therapeutic, we can create better sleep habits that support a good night’s rest and help reduce some of our stress. Here are some ideas to incorporate into your routine:
- Try adding a small healthy bedtime snack to help maintain your blood sugar throughout the night. Without it, unbeknownst to you, low blood sugar could cause you to wake up. Eating balanced meals throughout the day can help you sleep through the night and sleeping through the night reduces cravings, which helps you eat in balance during the day! It’s a win-win.
- Decrease or eliminate caffeine.
- Have a consistent sleep schedule (the body loves routine!) and start getting ready for bed early enough to get 7-9 hours of sleep.
- Do some relaxing activities to wind down: take a bath, do some light stretching, read a book, journal, sip some herbal tea, meditate.
- Turn off electronics at least an hour prior to bed. Consider wearing blue light glasses if you are around screens in the evening.
- Turn down the thermostat to make the environment prime for sleeping and make the room dark with an eye-pillow or black out shades.
- Take 400 – 600 mg of magnesium glycinate before bed. Taking magnesium at bedtime relaxes your entire body and can help you fall asleep and stay asleep.
For more tips on sleep, check out our online class Getting a Good Night’s Sleep.
Balance Stress And Emotions With Real Food
If you remember one thing from this article, remember that food is POWERFUL! Each time we eat, we have the opportunity to create balance or imbalance in our bodies, which is especially crucial during times of intense stress, emotional trauma, and grief. Aim for eating protein, fat, and carbs at all (or as many as you can muster) meals and snacks. Focus on incorporating some of the sleep habits mentioned above for more solid sleep and deeper rest. And lastly, we’re here to help however we can. I, and my fellow nutritionists and dietitians, work one-on-one with people to create a personalized eating plan unique to their health history, goals and lifestyle. We are here to be part of your support team as you navigate the stress in your life.
For more information, check out these resources: