Stress has a huge impact on what we eat and it can seem challenging to eat a balanced diet during these periods. But what we eat can also affect our stress levels. Find out the best tips for how to manage your stress with food! (CW - contains information and discussion around eating & food).
Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or struggle to cope with emotional and mental pressures. University can be a stressful experience, especially as deadlines loom, schedules become busier and unexpected events occur leading to stress building up and our ability to cope with demands starts to dwindle. Although a small amount of stress can benefit us to work harder, become more resilient and help us overcome challenges, learning to manage stress can be beneficial in helping us manage our responsibilities. One way to help with stress is adopting a healthy lifestyle.
What’s the connection between stress and food?
When we experience stress short-term, the body responds by releasing a hormone called adrenaline, into the bloodstream – known as the body’s flight or fight response. This causes us to temporarily reduce our appetite. However, if we are constantly in a state of stress, a hormone called cortisol is released. This is known for increasing motivation, as well as our appetite. As a result, that’s when stress eating comes into play.
During the state of stress, our food preferences alter. Students experiencing high levels of stress are more likely to consume foods that are readily available, quick, and convenient.
Managing stress with nutritious food
Although it’s not easy to maintain, sustaining a healthy diet can help to make stress more manageable. Numerous studies show that different foods can affect how we think and feel. By focusing on foods that are nutrient dense, we are feeding our bodies with the nutrients it needs to help us maintain focus and manage our stress cravings.
So, below are a few suggestions on improving stress with a healthy diet.
- Minimising caffeine
As a known stimulant, caffeine can influence your energy levels which can disturb sleep and raise anxiety levels if consumed too much. So, it might be an idea to try a decaf version, reduce the amount of caffeine consumed by setting a limit to avoid caffeine after 2pm.
- Keep hydrated
Keeping hydrated throughout the day can help maintain your concentration, focus and alertness. Make sure to keep a refillable water bottle on hand with you or have it within sight for ease
- Opting for slow-releasing carbohydrates
Such as wholegrains, fibre, wholewheat options, rice and oats provide energy throughout the day help to regulate blood sugar level, meaning you’re not left feeling sluggish and depleted.
- Healthy fats
Such as omega 3, 6, and 12, can be found in oily fish (think mackerel, salmon, sardines), nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocadoes, cheese, milk and eggs. These healthy fats known as MUFAs (monounsaturated fats) and PUFAs (polyunsaturated fats) help maintain energy levels, support immune system and offer a healthier alternative to saturated fats as part of a healthy diet. For appropriate portions of fish and healthy fats.
Consuming protein as part of a healthy diet can provide your body with energy and feeling fuller for longer. This means you’re less likely to crave foods high in sugar and fat. Why not try opting for lean meats, fish, eggs and plant-based sources such as beans, pulses, legumes, nuts and seeds.
- Eat the rainbow
Emerging research finds that aiming for more than 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day is linked to less stress. The findings show that individuals who eat a minimum of 470g of fruit and vegetables daily had 10% less stress levels compared to those who ate less than 230g. Also, fruit and vegetables are known to contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that can help to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress leading to improve mental wellbeing.
So, why not try out a new piece of fruit, eating a whole piece of fruit for snack, incorporating vegetables in your lunch and dinner. If you’re not a fan of vegetables, try chopping them up, blitzing them or hiding them when cooking. For more information on portions, check out the healthy eating (link) page!
- Minimise alcohol intake
Alcohol is a sedative and while it’s fine to drink in moderation, there are dangers associated related to stress. Alcohol impairs your decision making, affects the quality of sleep and appetite levels. So, when stressed, try opting for alternatives such as drinking chamomile tea, or going for a walk with friends or listening to music as ways to de-stress
- Practice mindfulness
Through meditation or journaling, these activities help to focus on the present moment and unload any thoughts to release any burden or stress you may feel. Practicing gratitude helps to positive change your thoughts by thinking about positive thoughts. As a result, improve healthy eating patterns and helping you managing daily life more easily.
For example, meditating as little as 5-10 minutes a day, journaling your thoughts for 15 minutes or writing 3 things down you’re grateful for each night. Apps such as Calm, Headspace, Aura and Insight Timer are excellent ways to momentarily switch off.
- Plan ahead
Planning is considered as a form of ‘proactive coping’ that acts like an emergency fund. Activities that promote this includes meal planning, creating a shopping list and ensuring there are meals already cooked in bulk means you don’t need to worry about.
- Swap hands
By eating with our non-dominant hand, we’re not used to eating with our dominant hand so we tend take more time to eat
For anyone who is affected by this article and wish to seek support, please visit the third floor of the Jordan Well building at the health and mental wellbeing department.
If you find you are not comfortable to do this but would like to speak to someone, Mind.org.uk has a fantastic list of support to guide you.
Stress can affect all of us and no one is alone.
Find out more
Curve your Stress Eating! - The Stress Management Society
Eating Stress-Relieving Foods Can Help Lower Anxiety (abbott.com)
Tips for Healthy Eating to Help Manage Stress - Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center (colostate.edu)
Nutrition and Stress - Campus Health (unc.edu)
Lifestyle and Managing Stress (eatright.org)
Stress Nutrition Advice - Nutritionist Resource (nutritionist-resource.org.uk)