Stress: We've all got it, and most of us would love to have a lot less of it. While there are many healthy ways to combat it—starting with meditation and regular exercise—how you eat plays a big role in how well you manage stress. During those times when life is crazy busy or things are tough at work or home, you want to be nourishing your body—not feeding the release of more stress hormones.
When we're stressed, both adrenaline and cortisol go to work, signaling your body to restock energy supplies regardless of whether you're depleted or not. The result? You tend to feel hungry more frequently and answer the call with more food than you may actually need. Add to that cortisol's ability to encourage fat storage, not enough exercise, and some poor food choices—like the ones outlined below—and you've got a recipe for rapid weight gain and a host of serious health problems down the road.
What follows is a list of stress-boosting foods to avoid and the stress-tamers you should always have within easy reach, particularly when times are tough:
The stress stimulators you should avoid eating:
1. Sidestep anything that calls itself an energy or coffee drink.
When you're stressed out, the last thing your body and brain need is a dose of caffeine, with or without a side of high-fructose corn syrup. While a grande latte or Red Bull may give you the initial lift you're looking for, you also get the inevitable crash, which leaves you feeling agitated and down. Drink more throughout the day to help you push through, and by the time bedtime rolls around, you'll be exhausted, irritable, struggling to fall asleep—and even more stressed.
2. Lay off sweet stuff and baked goods.
Tempting as it may be to hit the cookie jar, sweets will give you a quick energy surge at the cost of insulin resistance and weight gain. When you're stressed, the overproduction of stress hormones, combined with unhealthy food choices, helps pile on pounds by feeding the bad bacteria in your gut at the expense of the good. This gut imbalance can help trigger a vicious cycle of weight-boosting cravings and belly troubles that should make you think twice before "rewarding" yourself with a visit to the local cupcake shop.
3. Skip the processed foods.
While there are many familiar reasons to drop processed foods, here's one more: They're very good at increasing stress hormone levels. In addition to bad fats, chemicals, and factory-farmed, virtually nutrient-free ingredients, processed foods are loaded with cortisol-boosting sodium and sugar, which, as outlined above, is not what you should be feeding your brain and belly when stressed. Much as you may crave them when you're stressed out, processed foods and simple carbs, like chips or pretzels, push cortisol levels up and mood down.
4. Hold the highballs.
After a long, hard, stressed-out day, a cold beer or fancy cocktail may be high on your let's-unwind-quickly menu. Granted, a light buzz may be exactly what you think you need, but, in reality, drinking alcohol is counterproductive for stress management, as it stimulates the release of more stress hormones, putting your system under additional strain. Alcohol also has a depressive effect on mood, which can further exacerbate the stress pile-on.
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Next time you're stressed and craving junk, swap the stress stimulators out for these soothing alternatives:
Trade your coffee and energy drinks for:
Tea: Hot or cold, a cup or two of black, white, green, or red tea will give you a light caffeine lift—minus the crash—plus a healthy serving of good-for-you antioxidants. Drink your tea straight, without milk, which can reduce absorption of tea's antioxidants.
Green juice: To revive, re-energize, and replenish your energy reserves, mix a high-quality greens powder with water for a jitter-free, nutrient-rich energy boost.
Trade sweets and baked goods for:
Berry "salad": When you need a healthy treat, think berries. Combine several types in a bowl. Sprinkle with a little cinnamon, flax, or chia seeds. Enjoy the delicious taste; extra fiber; vitamins A, C, and E; and folic acid, polyphenols, and anthocyanins (which give berries their color).
Apples with almond butter: Apple slices with a dollop of almond butter are the perfect combination of crunchy, creamy, and a little bit sweet. There's enough fiber to slow the sugar's release into the bloodstream, so stress hormones stay calm.
Dark chocolate: A 1.5-ounce daily serving of dark chocolate can help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood, according to a recent study.
Trade processed foods for:
Real foods: Fresh, whole, preferably organic, unprocessed foods. ("Nothing in a box" is a good rule of thumb.)
Foods rich in omega-3s: Fatty fish, like salmon and tuna, have been shown to be helpful in keeping cortisol levels from surging in times of stress.
Real, homemade chips: Craving a little crunch? Then make your own chips. All you need is a baking sheet, a drizzle of olive oil, and a little Himalayan salt tossed on your veggies of choice—like thinly sliced sweet potatoes, zucchini, or kale. Bake 'em till they're crispy, and dig in.
Healthy on-the-go snacks: Eat a handful of nuts every day to promote better blood flow to the brain and add a layer of protection from cardiovascular problems.
Trade cocktails and beer for:
A glass of wine: As in, one glass—not two glasses, not a bottle. This will give you a dose of antioxidants to lower blood pressure a bit. But remember, to avoid kicking cortisol production back into high gear, less is more, so don't overdo it when you're stressed.
Mocktails: For a healthier alternative to alcoholic drinks or sugary sodas, make an alcohol-free mocktail by adding 1 to 2 ounces of organic, unsweetened tart cherry, pomegranate, or cranberry juice to 8 to 10 ounces of sparkling water, plus a touch of stevia. Remember to use fruit juice with a very light touch to keep sugar consumption low.