Do you have a habit of reaching for something to eat whenever a stressful situation happens? It may be a packet of biscuits when you have to deal with a new project at work, or a packet of sweets when the kids are stressing you out.  These are signs you use food as a way of responding to stress.

Stress is an inevitable part of our daily lives. We have stress coping mechanisms but they weren’t designed to cope with ongoing stress. They were designed to deal with an immediate threat to life and limb and once that situation resolved itself, everything went back to normal. The constant ongoing stress that we now experience almost on a daily basis (I’m going to be late for work – stress, held up in a traffic jam – stress) has led many of us to compensate by overeating.

However, what we eat can also contribute to our feelings of stress. There are a number of foods on the list of culprits, many of them things that we consume on a daily basis and they feed into our stress and anxiety. Many of these in turn are classed as stimulants.   Stimulants speed up our heart rate, causes our mind to start churning over at a rate of knots, and makes us jittery.

One of the best-known and most commonly consumed stimulants is also found in one of the world’s most popular beverages.   It’s called caffeine and coffee is loaded with it! Who doesn’t start their day off with a cup of coffee, or tea? Tea also contains caffeine, although not in as great a quantity.   There’s a good reason for our early morning habit of downing a cuppa first thing every morning – it gives us the kick start we need to get moving for the day. And in moderation that’s fine. But when we follow it up with another cup at morning tea, one at lunch time, another at afternoon tea and even after the evening meal, chances are our quality of sleep will be affected and that also feeds directly into stress and anxiety. We don’t sleep very well, wake up feeling groggy and out of sorts so we fix it with a cup of coffee. And so our lives become a round of sleepless nights and copious cups of coffee. Fortunately there is such a brew as decaffeinated coffee and whilst I can hear you all shudder, consider the alternative. Which is to cut out coffee altogether….

Sadly caffeine is also found in chocolate and some soft drinks as well.

Alcohol is another stimulant known to increase stress levels and tension. Once you come out of the euphoric haze caused by recent overindulgence that is! Alcohol causes our body to ramp up production of adrenaline, one of our primary stress hormones. Having a bundle of adrenaline racing around your body is not conducive to a good night’s sleep. Additionally, it can also complicate the process of removing toxins from the body. Toxins, as the name suggests, are toxic substances and allowing them to build up in the body causes all sorts of health complications.   It has also been implicated in some autoimmune diseases. Toxins come from a range of different sources – we produce them as by-products of some of our cellular processes and we get them from our environment through our lungs, and our skin.

Then there is smoking…. Dangerous, dirty and it increases hypertension, which is a cause of heart disease.

Another dangerous substance, and one that probably should be subject to the same package labelling requirements as things like cigarettes, is refined sugar. Sugar is at the root of so many health disorders. From diabetes to cancer, the blood sugar spikes that come from constantly overindulging in things like sweets and other sugary foods mess with our metabolism and with the hormones that regulate our metabolism.   And far from providing comfort in stressful situations, sugary snacks can actually leave you feeling more stressed out than ever.

Some types of fats are also dangerous because they adversely affect our cardiovascular system, which in turn contributes to stress. Salt has long been blamed for contributing to salt but research has largely vindicated a lot of its negative reputation. However, all things in moderation as they say, so this doesn’t mean you should start pouring more of it on those fat-laden French fries you like to snack on during stressful situations!

So that takes care of coffee, tea, chocolate, soft drinks, booze, smokes, sugar, and salt. If these are all on your list of ‘go to’ foods for stressful situations, you’re no doubt stressing out at the thought of having to reduce your intake of them if you want to reduce your stress levels.

You’ve also probably guessed what type of diet is best for keeping stress levels at a minimum! It’s the same one that gets touted for dealing with most health problems that can be resolved by a healthy diet. Namely one rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and other whole foods. But when you think about how humans originally evolved and what our digestive system is designed to deal with, you’ll understand why we should be eating more of these things. Everything that goes into making us the species we are operates in a finely tuned way.   We eat certain foods because we need the nutrients in them to create the various components that make us function properly. Hormones, enzymes, muscle tissues, nerve cells, fat, blood, brain, glands, skin, hair …. The raw ingredients to make these comes from our diet.   And if we’re not supplying these raw ingredients in the quantities we need, our health suffers. We start to experience things like stress, disease, and illness.

Some of these foods also contain natural de-stressors. Plus when we feel healthy it promotes the production of those feel-good hormones and that in turn reduces our stress levels and feelings of anxiety.

Some signs of food-induced stress to watch out for include headaches after eating, neck and/or back pain, irritation, and feeling anxious for no reason. If you have any of these on a regular basis, it may be a sign that what you’re eating is causing you stress. Start by identifying anything on the above list of known stress causers and reduce your intake of them. At the same time increase your intake of healthy fresh foods. Also make sure you get at least 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep each night – as you cut down known stress causing foods your sleep quality should start to improve. Not feeling so tired all the time will also reduce your stress levels.

Plan out your meals and put some thought into the balance of vitamins, minerals, carbs, proteins and fats they contain. Eat slowly – rushing a meal also contributes to stress and also leads to overeating. Give your brain time to catch up with your stomach and you’ll find less food goes a lot further. Which means you’ll be able to keep your weight at a healthy level, which also improves your stress levels.

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