Healthy eating during stressful times

Healthy meal

Our need for nutrients actually increases during periods of stress. Ironically, this is the time when many people choose less nutritious foods. If you skip meals or rely on processed or fast foods instead of a balanced diet, your nutrient needs will not be met. Research links diets low in nutrients to an increased risk of depression and anxiety. Choosing nutritious foods and eating regular meals can improve your mood, enhance your energy and immune system and make it easier to manage stress.

Food is used by many as a reward or for comfort – but when we are stressed we are most likely to choose something low in nutrients and high in sugar, salt, and/ or fat.  Many have a tendency to eat when anxious, even when not feeling hungry. On the other hand, others experiencing stress lose the desire to eat and frequently miss meals and snacks.

Following these nutrition tips can help you manage stress and provide your body with much needed physical and mental energy and nutrients to manage a crisis or time of stress much better:

  • Eat a balanced diet with a focus on meals that contain vegetables and fruit, whole grains and protein such as lean meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, nuts, milk or soy beverages, cheese, or yogurt. The nutrients in these foods are important for supporting brain structure and function.  
  • Be sure to eat your veggies, which are rich in vitamins, minerals and anti-inflammatory compounds that help to keep the brain healthy.
  • Stock up on nutritious snacks that can help to improve your energy and focus – raw veggies and hummus, yogurt and fruit, whole grain crackers and nut or seed butter, hard-boiled eggs and low sugar, whole grain granola bars.
  • Include healthy fats and oils, especially sources of omega 3 fats found in salmon, sardines and other oily fish, walnuts, canola oil, flaxseed, chia seed and omega-3 eggs. These fats have a protective effect on the brain and mental health.
  • Always start the day with breakfast. Eat a moderate sized meal or snack every 3 to 4 hours after this and include a source of protein with all meals. You may need to plan snacks in the afternoon or evening as well in order to maintain your energy.
  • Pay attention to what, why, and how much you are eating. If you notice you are grabbing food when you’re not hungry, keep a food and feelings diary to identify what triggers your eating.
  • Keep healthy foods in the house for meals and snacks and if you feel hungry for a treat, buy yourself a single serving at a time.
  • Using a timer or cell phone alarm, wait 15 minutes if you have a stress-related craving, then re-evaluate if you are truly hungry; you may find the craving has gone.
  • Keep a water bottle with you at all times and drink water regularly.
  • Avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol. Relax with decaffeinated hot or cold beverages or water with a slice of lemon or lime.
  • Find an activity you enjoy and schedule time to take part in this. Being active is a stress-reducer.
  • Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep at night will help you to have more energy and will also help to decrease food cravings.

Speak to a health care provider, such as a counsellor, nurse, or physician if you are finding it difficult to follow these suggestions. A campus physician can provide a referral to our registered dietitian if you need advice on stress and healthy eating.

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