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Nutrition and stress

If you answer Yes to one or more of these questions, your stress level might be affecting your eating habits.

  • Do you feel like you have to skip breakfast or other meals because you don’t have time to eat?
  • Do you depend on caffeine to keep you awake in the morning or at other times of the day when you are feeling low in energy?
  • Are you starving when you get home from a busy day of classes and other activities because you have skipped meals?
  • When you eat under stress, do you choose foods that are high in salt, sugar and/or fat?
  • Have you lost or gained weight recently due to a change in appetite or stress eating?

While stress often erodes healthy eating patterns, our need for nutrients actually increases during periods of stress. Research shows that when high demands are placed on the body, there is a more rapid turnover of protein, fat and carbohydrates needed to produce energy. This results in an increased demand for some key nutrients, including Vitamin C and many B vitamins that are used to produce energy.  So when meals are skipped or a balanced diet is not maintained, nutrient needs are often not met and health may become compromised.

During stressful times, one way people often cope is to skip meals. Then, when energy slumps, the reaction is often to grab a quick, accessible treat, typically something high in sugar like candies or cookies. While this quick burst of energy provides some immediate relief, it is short-lived and almost always followed by an even worse slump in energy.  A repetitive cycle can follow: the need to get a quick energy boost followed by a crash. This cycle leaves people feeling more tired and irritable than before.

Caffeine also contributes to this unhealthy pattern. When energy drops or a stressful task looms, another common response is to grab a coffee, energy drink or other caffeinated beverage. Ironically, this will increase stress levels because high levels of caffeine adds to feelings of anxiety and the stress response, including increasing heart rate.

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 based on Canada’s Food Guide and 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.
  • 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.
  • Always start the day with breakfast. Eat a moderate sized meal or snack every 3 to 4 hours after this. You may need to plan snacks in the afternoon or evening as well in order to maintain your energy.
  • 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.
  • Ask your health care provider, such as a counsellor, nurse or physician, for a referral to the campus dietitian for further advice if you are finding it difficult to follow these suggestions.

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  • In crisis?
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