As a dietitian, I often give moms advice on feeding their family and themselves healthfully. With three young children myself, I know how tough it can be to balance nutrition, convenience, and taste. Moms often tell me they tend to often reach for sugary, fatty comfort foods, and there's a physical reason for it: When your body is under stress, it releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Both cause blood sugar to spike but then eventually plummet, leading to a craving for sweets.
However, certain healthier foods may help your body deal better with the various physical effects of stress, and others may actually improve your mood. Of course, food alone won't do the trick, since so many variables affect the way we feel. But proper nutrition is one of the few factors that we can control, points out Parents advisor Connie Diekman, R.D., director of University Nutrition at Washington University, in St. Louis. So put down the bag of chips and read on.
Get in a better state of mind by choosing foods that are high in phytochemicals (which also have disease-fighting properties) and nutrients including folate, vitamins B and D, and omega-3. "The research is clear: These will help you deal with the trials of everyday anxiety," says Diekman.
Fiber-rich carbs, particularly oatmeal or whole-wheat or whole-grain bread, increase the feel-good chemical serotonin but don't break down as easily in your bloodstream as the refined sugar in desserts does. "As a result, they don't cause as much of a roller-coaster effect as sweets, which give you energy, but then make you lethargic," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and author of Read It Before You Eat It. You can also crunch on fiber-filled carbs that may alleviate tension, such as carrot sticks or apples (instead of chips or even pretzels).
Green tea contains an amino acid, theanine, which has been found to reduce tension and anxiety. Drinking two cups of brewed green tea during the day can promote relaxed alertness, says nutritional biochemist Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., author of The Cortisol Connection. However, because of the caffeine, it's best to drink it in the morning or early afternoon.
Peanuts, cashews, and almonds have an impressive amount of selenium, a mineral that's been found to help elevate mood. Other high-in-selenium foods are egg yolks, fish (including tuna in water), shellfish, and poultry. You should get 55 micrograms each day; a single Brazil nut has 100 percent of your daily needs. Don't eat too many, though; they're higher in fat than most other nuts.
Start your day with a bowl of whole-grain cereal, such as Cheerios or Raisin Bran. Those are especially good sources of B vitamins including folate, thiamin, B6, and B12, all of which help the brain produce serotonin. Studies suggest that eating more foods rich in these nutrients can reduce anxiety. Other B-filled choices include bananas, poultry, and spinach.
It's a primal thing: When you're feeling anxious, your body focuses on immediate survival, not on supporting your immune system. However, the longer your body is under stress, the more worn down your immune system becomes and the more likely you are to develop colds and other illnesses, says internist Erika Schwartz, M.D., chief medical officer of AgeMD.org. Low immunity can also bring on inflammation, a condition that leads to changes in how all parts of the body work. It can ultimately put us at an increased risk of elevated blood pressure, heart attack, arthritis, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. "If you can prevent inflammation with good nutrition, you will help your body function better overall," says Diekman. The following foods can get you to achieve this goal.
Fish and other foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids can reduce your levels of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol; they help to relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure. Salmon, tuna, and halibut are all rich in omega-3s, as are foods fortified with DHA (a type of omega-3 fat) such as certain yogurts, milk, and eggs.
Take advantage of the fact that they're in season: Studies have found that blueberries and strawberries, in particular, protect blood vessels in the brain from inflammation, helping to keep you sharp. These fruits contain the plant nutrients (known as flavonoids) anthocyanins, which act like little soldiers in your body, protecting cells from an onslaught of free radicals. (Another flavonoid with anti-inflammatory properties is quercetin, found in onions, apples, red wine, and grapefruit.)
Cocoa and dark chocolate can be rich in flavanols, which are other flavonoids that may help reduce inflammation. An Italian study found that people who ate the equivalent of about half a dark chocolate bar (or 3/4 ounce) every three days had lower levels of a marker of inflammation than those who ate no chocolate at all. Eat the kind with at least 60 percent cocoa per ounce, recommends Diekman. If it's hard to control your portions, sprinkle natural, unsweetened cocoa powder on oatmeal or in yogurt.
Yogurt (and milk) contains the amino acid tryptophan, which helps produce serotonin and therefore has a calming effect on your body, explains Diekman. "It makes you a little more comfortable and may relieve anxiety." So after you've put the kids to bed, enjoy a low-fat cup an hour or two before you turn in for the night.
Chronic stress can lead to an elevation in blood cholesterol and deposits of cholesterol in the arteries. Researchers at Tulane University, in New Orleans, analyzed ten studies and found that a diet rich in legumes can decrease total cholesterol by nearly 14 points. To reduce your absorption of cholesterol, eat foods rich in soluble fiber, such as beans, peas, and lentils.
Try this menu to help elevate your mood and counter the effects stress has on your body.
1 cup cereal containing at least 5g of fiber per serving, mixed with 1 cup DHA-enriched yogurt
2 cups green tea
1 slice low-fat cheese
1 slice whole-grain bread
1 cup blueberries
1 cup navy-bean soup
4 oz. grilled chicken breast
2 cups green salad with 2 tsp. vinaigrette
1 cup low-fat milk
2 graham crackers
1 sliced apple
4 oz. baked salmon
1 cup spinach sautéed with 1 minced garlic clove
1/2 cup mashed sweet potatoes
1 cup strawberries dipped in 1 Tbs. melted dark chocolate (containing at least 60 percent cocoa)
1 cup low-fat yogurt
2 graham crackers
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Parents magazine.
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