Practice these feel-good food habits to help yourself stay strong and resilient.
Worry is nothing to, well, worry about. But chronic stress, like the kind created by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, can create a cascade of issues that makes it harder to live the healthy life you want.
For some of us, stressful times spike cravings for foods that are heavy in fat, salt, or sugar: burgers, pizza, chips, and cookies. For others, tense times shrink appetites and crush motivation to shop for and cook healthy foods.
But focusing on eating well can be a key to calming your mind and taking back control, says nutritionist Kristie Finnan, R.D.N. We asked Finnan to share her top tactics for eating well and protecting the body from the negative effects of stress. Here’s what she recommends to avoid stress eating.
Stress Tamer #1: Make Breakfast a Habit
Whether your stress reaction is overeating, undereating, or something in between, starting your day with a wholesome breakfast can help you feel your best, according to Finnan. “Make it a habit,” she says.
Breakfast gives your body the fuel it needs to power you through the day, and it can help you avoid less nutritious midmorning snacks like pastries or donuts.
“Rotate a few different easy options like eggs, oatmeal, and a high-fiber whole grain cereal with milk,” she advises.
Need some ideas? Try these healthy breakfast recipes for older adults.
Stress Tamer #2: Fry Calories, Not Food
After breakfast, Finnan suggests that you use the fuel you just took in to burn up whatever anxiety you may be feeling as you head into your day.
Get moving with a walk, or “try some yoga online, practice some deep breathing, or connect with a friend on the phone,” she says.
Paired with your healthy breakfast, this combo helps you establish a healthy habit and gain a measure of control during times of uncertainty.
Stress Tamer #3: Map Your Meals
The pressure of figuring out what to eat three times a day can cause stress. “That’s where meal planning can help,” says Finnan.
Sketching out what you’ll eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a few days or a week at a time means you do the work of planning and deciding just once—then you can go on autopilot as you simply follow your plan.
This can clear your mind and allow you to spend your mental energy on things you truly enjoy, she says.
Stress Tamer #4: Edit Your Shopping List
What you don’t buy at the grocery store can be just as important as what you do buy.
“If you know that you binge eat or overeat certain foods, keep them out of the house,” says Finnan.
If you can’t bear the thought of not having treats on hand, store them out of sight in a cabinet or in the back of your pantry, instead of out in the open. When grabbing a snack is just a bit less convenient, she says, it can make a big difference.
Stress Tamer #5: Know How to Cheat
Eating better doesn’t mean restaurant food is off-limits. “Once a week, give yourself a break and order takeout. Just make it healthier takeout,” says Finnan.
Choose a spot that specializes in salads or grain bowls instead of fast food or pizza. Broth-based soups or simple lean grilled protein with vegetables are also good choices.
Stress Tamer #6: Snack Smartly
Some people shy away from nuts because they’re relatively high in calories, but they are also packed with good nutrition.
Nuts provide a generous amount of energy-sustaining healthy fat and protein in a small package. “I love a few cocoa-dusted almonds as dessert,” says Finnan.
To keep calories in check, portion out a serving size instead of eating them right out of the bag. And if you find nuts difficult to chew, you can get similar benefits from a smooth nut butter.
Stress Tamer #7: Boost Your Tea
In times of stress, tea is a popular soother—and for good reason. In one study, people who drank tea had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol when under stress than those who drank a different beverage.
But to get the most benefit, you might consider looking beyond your usual cup of Lipton. Black tea contains caffeine, which can actually make you more jittery.
“Try a mug of chamomile or holy basil tea,” says Finnan. Both are natural ways to help your body and mind relax.
Stress Tamer #8: Extinguish Inflammation
Chronic stress can interfere with the body’s ability to regulate its inflammatory response. Inflammation plays a role in many health issues, including heart disease and arthritis. Certain foods can help tamp down inflammation.
“Turmeric and ginger are both powerful anti-inflammatory foods,” says Finnan.
You can add dried turmeric to scrambled eggs, rice, roasted vegetables, or soups. Ginger is good in smoothies, stir-fries, or steeped in water to make a tea.
Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale are also great.
Stress Tamer #9: Focus on Complex Carbs
“Carbs help boost serotonin, which reduces stress and improves your mood,” says Finnan.
But not all carbs are created equal. Instead of refined carbohydrates like white bread, sugary cereals, and cookies, reach for complex whole-food carbs like beans, brown rice, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes.
Along with providing a serotonin boost, complex carbs also deliver more nutrition and fiber—and help curb inflammation. Whole grain breads and pastas, or alternative pastas like those made from chickpeas, are also good choices.
Stress Tamer #10: Plant Yourself in the Produce Aisle
For many people, the pandemic has meant a leaner household budget. Breaking the bank at the grocery store can definitely increase worries, but it’s possible to bring home a healthy haul without spending a lot of dough.
“Shifting toward a plant-based diet, heavy on whole grains and beans, can be budget-friendly,” Finnan says. “Beans and lentils are not only some of the most affordable ingredients at the grocery store—they’re also among the best for you.”
Stress Tamer #11: Don’t Go It Alone
If you want to improve your nutrition, you don’t have to do it by yourself. Talking to a registered dietitian (R.D.) can help you figure out how to best meet your specific needs. Check to see if your health plan covers a certain number of visits per year—it might. Even if it doesn’t, there are affordable options.
“Many grocery stores have an R.D. on staff,” says Finnan. “Sometimes you’ll have to pay for a session, but a lot of times the store will give you a gift card for groceries in the same amount.”
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