Keeping healthy by managing stress

Everyone has stress in their lives at some point.  Between careers, school, or money (or the lack thereof), we all face stressful situations.  But how we deal with them controls how much the stress affects our mindsets and health.

For some, stress can lead to increased weight gain.
“When our body is under stress, we go into fight-or-flight mode,” says Allison Haring, RD and member of the Michigan Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “During fight-or-flight, our bodies release the hormone cortisol. This can be related to weight gain, especially if the stress is chronic and the hormone is not turned off.”

Stress can affect eating patterns.
Some forego eating because they may think they’re too busy. This can put added stress on our bodies as well as cause overeating when they get the chance to eat. “If someone restricts themselves when it comes time to eat, they may reach for the wrong foods because they are so famished,” notes Haring.  Others may be so focused on the problem at hand, they do not realize their true hunger levels and they eat mindlessly.  Cindy from Lake Odessa can relate.  “I tend to eat whatever is in front of me.  And I’ll eat a lot faster than normal so by the time I realize what I’m doing, it’s usually too late and I’ve eaten way too many calories.”

These mindless habits can have consequences. 
“The cortisol released typically correlates with making people crave foods higher in fats and sugars and that are more calorically dense,” says Haring.  Cindy agrees noting she usually goes towards easy to find foods.  “It is things like chips and ice cream…and I don’t really even like ice cream.  It’s never fruits or vegetables.”  Not only can stress lead to poor eating habits, this type of pattern can lead to feelings of regret or further stress, worsening the situation.

Being aware of the foods we eat may help calm our bodies. 
“Foods such as spinach, dark chocolate, oatmeal, salmon, tea, or pistachios have vitamins and minerals that can help calm our bodies and soothe our stress,” says Haring. “Having healthier snacks can help alleviate some of the added stress that can come with stress eating.”

There are approaches to help disconnect our stress levels with food.

  • Eat breakfast – this will help you maintain stable blood sugar levels and give you more effective functioning and thought processing.
  • Lay off the caffeine – relying on those cups of coffee to get you through the stress may be making matters worse. Try green tea which has lower caffeine and more antioxidants.
  • Keep snacks handy – having a healthy, pre-portioned snack on hand will help tide you over when you don’t think you have time to eat.
  • Keep your kryptonite out of sight – if you know candy or chips are your downfall, don’t leave them in visible areas. You will be less likely to grab mindlessly if you aren’t staring at them all day.
  • Find a hobby – Haring suggests one that uses your hands.  “Hobbies like knitting or playing an instrument not only can calm you, but help take your mind off eating so you don’t associate food with stress.”
  • Identify what actually causes the stress – is it deadlines or that you procrastinated?  Once you know what causes your stress, you are closer to learning how to control and/or avoid it.
  • Saying ‘no’ is ok – know your limits and try to not overcommit yourself
  • Recharge yourself – go for a walk, take a long bath, call a friend, light some scented candles… take care of yourself and try to keep a balanced perspective.  Haring recommends having an ‘out.’ Do something that calms you down like walking the dog or listening to music to help you stay tuned into your body.
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