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A close up of strawberry ice cream.

Have you ever noticed that when you’re under stress, the wheels seem come off in other areas of your health? Workouts get skipped, it’s easier to catch a cold, and healthy nutrition choices seem to fly out the window.

It’s no surprise that even with a well-devised food plan and good intentions, a day of unexpected circumstances or a high-pressure situation can send us straight for comfort foods and convenience options. However, those very foods we reach for might be the exact ones that can create more metabolic havoc and cause you to feel even worse.

Stress reigns as one of the most destructive and insidious external factors that can derail nutrition choices. Read on to learn more about the diet do’s and don’ts to help preserve your health when tensions are high and you feel frazzled.

Why are choices hard to make when we’re stressed?

Stress isn’t just in your head. Under both acute and chronic stress, your body undergoes a cascade of metabolic changes. When chronic, it can also contribute to everything from belly fat to disrupted sleep, chronic disease risk, muscle loss, weakened bones, faster aging, and digestive issues.

The cortisol surge during a stressful situation is designed to help you in a “fight or flight” stress event — such as a tiger chasing you or a true physical emergency. When an actual physical response to your stressors isn’t needed, however, the hormone surges throw off blood-sugar regulation, trigger cravings, send our energy levels on a roller coaster ride, can cause sodium retention, and impact our decision making.

This is a recipe for trouble.

Top Foods to Avoid  

Thankfully, armed with the right knowledge, you can make more informed decisions around what foods to sidestep during times of stress. Here’s the rundown of the top ones to limit:

Added sugars, such as soda pop, ice cream, chocolate, and brownies

Since cortisol itself spikes blood sugar to provide energy to help you fight off or run from a perceived physical threat, throwing sweetened beverages or sweets into the mix worsens an already-disruptive metabolic situation. Unused high blood sugar will get stored as body fat as well contribute to inflammation.

Options high in sugar — especially when not paired with protein or fiber — essentially mainline extra sugar (or glucose) into your bloodstream. What goes up must come down, and the associated blood-sugar crash shortly after their consumption can further spiral you into more frequent and intense cravings. These options also are not satiating and can leave you wanting more, even if they taste good in the moment.

Refined grains, such as crackers, chips, snack foods, and cereal

Packaged snack foods tend to be high in refined and processed grains which break down very quickly. (Sometimes they’re referred to as “adult baby food” for this reason — they’re fast digesting.) As a result, chips, crackers, or cereal can send blood sugar on a wild ride similar to that of the dessert options.

These foods are often high in sodium as well. While there are some misconceptions around sodium and blood pressure, the imbalance of high sodium intake from processed foods and low potassium intake from fresh foods can create some issues and contribute to further fluid retention.

Coffee-shop treats, such as flavored lattes and seasonal drinks

Excessive caffeine intake alone can be a punch to your adrenal glands (which govern your hormonal response to stress), especially if you’re recovering from the metabolic effects of ongoing stress, sometimes referred to as adrenal fatigue.

When you combine several shots of espresso with the pumps of sugar found in the drinks from nearest coffee-shop chain drive through, you’re primed to create additional internal stress. And since sleep is crucial to resilience to stress and recovery, reaching for your favorite latte at 3 p.m. could have added detrimental effects in addition to the disrupted sleep physiology that occurs from the original stressor.

Common food sensitivities:, such as gluten, dairy, and soy

If you’ve ever had to run to the restroom when you’ve been nervous or had a presentation or speaking engagement, you know firsthand that stress wreaks havoc on our digestive tract.

But even if you haven’t had an obvious restroom emergency due to nervousness, unchecked cortisol can contribute to changes in gut function and an increase in intestinal permeability, which is linked to food sensitivities.

Whether or not you’ve had your sensitivities tested or have followed a modified elimination diet to help pinpoint them, temporarily limiting the top offending foods, such as gluten, dairy, and soy, can help keep inflammation at bay in the event that you have an underlying trigger you might not be aware of.

What to Eat Instead

As you scan the list of foods above, avoiding them probably seems easier said than done. But if you have some of the right power foods on hand to turn to instead, you can be assured that your choices in even the most stressful situations can still potentially keep your healthy plans on track.

When in doubt, reach for protein

There is no macronutrient your body needs more when you’re stressed than protein. The muscle breakdown under chronic stress can be a real issue, and high-quality protein sources provide amino acids as the literal building blocks to rebuild and recover.

Aim to boost your intake of pastured eggs, wild-caught fish, organic poultry, and grass-fed beef. If those aren’t readily available, use a high-quality protein powder (free of artificial colors and flavors) as a convenient and accessible backup.

Complex carbs

Most people are surprised to learn that a diet too low in carbs for too long can actually increase cortisol output, especially if you exercise. Although the list of foods to avoid above contains a lot of carbohydrates, fully avoiding them is not necessary for most — we just want to opt for more whole-food sources.

Certain carbohydrate options, such as resistant starch, have been shown to support digestive health, blood-sugar balance, and body composition — all of which need some TLC during stressful times. Include a cupped handful of complex and wholesome carbohydrate-based foods at your meals, such as beans or oats, along with protein and fat.

Foods rich in magnesium and potassium

The hormonal stress response throws off electrolyte status, and electrolytes are important for overall vitality, regulation of heart rhythm, and nerve and muscle function.

Since stress can reduce both magnesium and potassium (two forms of electrolytes), make it a point to include foods rich in both. Aim for dark leafy greens, beans, and some pure cocoa (perhaps mixed into your protein shake) for a boost of magnesium, along with a chelated magnesium supplement in the evenings. Some high-potassium food options include baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, and lentils.

Honorable mention: Green tea

You’ve probably heard about the health benefits of green tea. It’s full of antioxidants and is said to be a relaxing beverage. While it’s important to avoid excessive amounts of caffeine during times of high stress, the modest amount in green tea is unlikely to be a concern.

Green tea contains an amino acid called L-theanine, which is reported to stimulate relaxation and help ease feelings of anxiety. Combined with the modest caffeine content, L-theanine is said to have supportive effects on cognition and brain health as well.

A foolproof nutrition strategy with go-to healthy options is integral to any effective stress-management plan. By knowing what food pitfalls to avoid and which options to reach for when you’re at your wit’s end, you can buffer and safeguard your metabolism.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Training Facebook group.

samantha-mckinney-life-time-training-registered-dietician
Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT

Samantha McKinney has been a dietitian, trainer and coach for over 10 years. At first, her interests and experience were in a highly clinical setting in the medical field, which ended up laying a strong foundation for understanding metabolism as her true passion evolved: wellness and prevention. She hasn’t looked back since and has had the honor of supporting Life Time’s members and nutrition programs in various roles since 2011.

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