Stress. We’ve all got it, and most of us would love to have a lot less of it. While there are many healthy ways to combat it—starting with meditation and regular exercise—how you eat plays a big role in how well you manage stress. For example, those times when life is crazy busy or things are tough at work or home, are you feeding your body or are you feeding the release of more stress hormones?
When we’re stressed, both adrenaline and cortisol go to work, signaling your body to restock energy supplies regardless of whether you’re depleted or not. The result? You tend to feel hungry more frequently and answer the call with more food than you may actually need. Add to that cortisol’s ability to encourage fat storage, not enough exercise, and some poor food choices—like the ones outlined below—and you’ve got a recipe for rapid weight gain and a host of serious health problems down the road.
What follows is a list of stress-boosting foods to avoid and the stress-tamers you should always have within easy reach, particularly when times are tough:
The Stress Stimulators
1. Sidestep anything that calls itself an energy or coffee drink. When you’re stressed out, the last thing your body and brain needs is a dose of caffeine, with or without a side of high fructose corn syrup. While a grande latte or Red Bull may give you the initial lift you’re looking for, you also get the inevitable crash, which leaves you feeling agitated and down. Drink more throughout the day to help you push through, and by the time bedtime rolls around, you’ll be exhausted, irritable, struggling to fall asleep—and even more stressed.
2. Lay off sweet stuff and baked goods. Tempting as it may be to hit the cookie jar, sweets will give you a quick energy surge at the cost of insulin resistance and weight gain. When you’re stressed, the overproduction of stress hormones, combined with unhealthy food choices, helps pile on pounds by feeding the bad bacteria in your gut at the expense of the good. This gut imbalance can help trigger a vicious cycle of weight-boosting cravings and belly troubles that should make you think twice before “rewarding” yourself with a visit to the local cupcake shop.
3. Skip the processed foods. While there are numerous familiar reasons to drop processed foods, here’s one more: They’re very good at increasing stress hormone levels. In addition to bad fats, chemicals, and factory-farmed, virtually nutrient-free ingredients, processed foods are loaded with cortisol-boosting sodium and sugar, which, as outlined above, is not what you should be feeding your brain and belly when stressed. Much as you may crave them when you’re stressed-out, processed foods and simple carbs, like chips or pretzels, push cortisol levels up and mood down.
4. Hold the highballs. After a long, hard, stressed-out day, a cold beer or fancy cocktail may be high on your let’s-unwind-quick menu. Granted, a light buzz may be exactly what you think you need, but, in reality, drinking alcohol is counterproductive for stress-management, as it stimulates the release of more stress hormones, putting your system under additional strain. Alcohol also has a depressive effect on mood, which can further exacerbate the stress pile-on.
The Stress Soothers
Trade your coffee and energy drinks for:
- Tea: Hot or cold, a cup or two of black, white, green, or red tea will give you a light caffeine lift, minus the crash, plus a healthy serving of good-for-you antioxidants. Drink your tea straight, without milk, which can reduce absorption of tea’s antioxidants.
- Green juice: To revive, re-energize, and replenish your energy reserves, mix a high-quality greens powder with water for a jitter-free, nutrient-rich energy boost.