It is a fact of life that everyone experiences stress from time to time. The ability to manage stress helps dictate how healthy our lifestyle can be. Sometimes that stress management shows up in our diets. People often turn to "comfort foods" to ease their tension in the short term, but in the long run these actions have very unhealthy consequences.
However, there are foods that are not only good for you, but good for fighting everyday stress as well.
You have always been told to eat your vegetables...and with good reason. Green vegetables like asparagus, broccoli, spinach and kale are full of B vitamins that are essential to regulating your emotions, fighting off depression and lowering anxiety levels. Additionally, many of these same vegetables are rich in magnesium, which is key in helping muscles relax.
Even if you're a meat and potatoes person, you'll find there are plenty of options to help you ease your stress burden. Beef frequently is demonized when it comes to a balanced diet, but eaten in healthy doses, it can be a wonderful stress-breaking main course option. A cup of lean raw chuck or a cup of regular ground beef contains high levels of zinc and iron which work to strengthen your immune system and boost energy levels. It is also a good source of B vitamins.
Looking for an alternative to red meat? Fish is a good choice. Most types of fish contain several B vitamins, including B6 and B12 and help the body produce serotonin (a key neurotransmitter) and prevent depression. Tuna fits nicely into this category. Eaten with a sensible amount of light mayonnaise, tuna is a good low-fat, high-protein food.
Turkey is another helpful option. Sure, we all know about tryptophan - the ingredient that makes everyone drowsy after a big Thanksgiving dinner, but turkey also contains selenium which helps increases serotonin levels.
Those potatoes you're craving also can work well as part of a stress-busting diet. Chock full of complex carbohydrates, potatoes are useful for helping regulate anger, aggression, body temperature, mood and sleep. A baked potato can be either a tasty, healthy and relaxing side dish or lightly salted and stuffed with broccoli and low-fat cheese for a light midday meal.
If you're in search of another side dish, whole-grain rice is a good place to look. In fact, any whole-grain food -- whether it's rice, pasta or bread -- adds more complex carbs to your diet. Even more, whole grains are digested more slowly, which means you feel "fuller" longer.
How you prepare your food can make a difference in how your body handles stress as well. Try to avoid oils with high-fat contents and skip trans-fats altogether. Many stores carry spreads and butter substitutes that work nicely. If you are looking for a way to spice up your meals, try basil. It's an herb that most people recognize as a tasty addition to spaghetti and pizza sauces, but also works with chicken, turkey and salads. It's a good source of vitamin A and magnesium and can help strengthen the immune system.
Maybe you're looking to escape the kitchen for a night. In that case, head out for a sushi dinner. You already know that eating fish can aid in helping lower stress levels, but the seaweed in many sushi rolls does the same. Seaweed is full of magnesium and B2 vitamins, but it also contains pantothenic acid which helps regulate the function of the adrenal gland.
The adrenal gland resides just above your kidneys and produces several different hormones, including the release of epinephrine (more commonly known as adrenaline) which helps dictate how we handle stressful situations.
Now that you have several options for a stress relieving dinner, what about preventing stress with a good morning meal? Again, there are several easy to find and easy to prepare choices.
It's probably little surprise that fruit is useful when it comes to lowering anxiety levels. Blueberries are a particularly good choice. They are packed with vitamin C and antioxidants for boosting your immune system. If you're in the mood for something a little more exotic, papaya is a delicious source of vitamins A and C and also contains folate, a nutrient shown to be key in fighting depression.
For an added boost, either of those fruits (and others like cantaloupe) mix well with cottage cheese. Cottage cheese is a good source of B vitamins and works as either a breakfast food or a midday snack.
It might surprise you, but even a simple bowl of cereal can be a stress reliever. Many cereals nowadays come fortified with vitamins and minerals essential to helping the body fight stress. When added with milk, it works that much better. During stressful periods, your body uses more calcium than it would in other times, making it more important to replenish those reserves. That same calcium boost is also another check mark in favor of cottage cheese.
If you're on the go and looking for a quick snack, try some almonds. You might remember the commercials asking people to eat "a can a week. There's a reason. Almonds are powerhouses, loaded with vitamins B and E, magnesium and zinc. Take care not to overdo it, though -- they're also high in fat.
While you are taking care to add stress relievers to your diet, there are a few so-called "comfort foods" that you might be better off skipping. High on that list are items that contain caffeine. It seems like a no-brainer, but how many times have you heard someone say they can't function until they have their morning coffee? Caffeine releases extra adrenaline which only adds to feelings of stress and anxiety.
Avoid foods and drinks with high sugar content. Sodas not only contain caffeine, but they cause a spike in blood sugar levels which increase insulin production and hinder the adrenal glands from properly doing their job. In the end, it leads to the inevitable energy crash that often leaves you feeling worse.
It is also a good idea to skip alcoholic drinks as well. Liquor, wine and beer contain super-sugars that accelerate the effects of drinks with normally refined sugars. That "buzz" may take the worries away for a bit, but the effects are definitely temporary and have consequences.
By no means is the list comprehensive -- there are hundreds, if not thousands, of foods that can quell anxiety and help you better cope with stress. Explore your local grocer or farmer's market and see what else is out there. Remember, the things that cause stress probably won't be going away anytime soon, but a healthy, balanced diet can go a long way toward easing the tension.