You may recall over the last several months, I have highlighted many of the Six Pillars of Lifestyle Medicine. Remember, Lifestyle Medicine is the use of evidenced-based, lifestyle therapeutic approaches, such as a predominantly whole food, plant-based diet, regular physical activity, adequate sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substance use and other non-drug modalities to treat, oftentimes, reverse and prevent lifestyle-related chronic diseases that are all too prevalent in society.

As a Lifestyle Medicine Health Coach, I’m well aware that managing stress can lead to improved health and productivity. However, unmanaged stress can lead to anxiety, depression, obesity, immune dysfunction and more. In previous newsletters “What Doesn’t Kill Us, Makes Stronger…Well, Maybe,” I outlined the positive and negative consequences of stress. This was followed by, “Take a Deep Breath…and Breathe,” which showcased many practices (and yes, we must practice these techniques) that help reduce stress and calm our anxieties.

But…what about food?

When you are having a stress-filled day at work, do you find yourself gravitating towards the vending machines for a little comfort? At home, do you grab for the chips, dip your hand into the cookie jar or stare into the refrigerator till something jumps at you? Most of us are all too familiar with stress eating, but did you know there are foods you can eat to beat stress? Today, we take our final deep-dive into stress management and the power of your fork to either “choke” or “stoke” your stress.

When stressed, most people throw caution to the wind and gorge themselves on heavy, meat-packed meals, fast-foods, take-out, fried foods, chocolates, cookies, or pastries, and often times, alcohol. Let’s face it–we’ve all searched for comfort in food, but that isn’t a good solution.

When you’re turning to unhealthy foods you may feel better temporarily, but in the long run, you will feel worse. When your body isn’t getting the right nutrition, you can begin to feel less energetic, more lethargic, and in some cases less able to concentrate and focus. All of this can lead to even more stress.

Foods that Choke Stress:

If you’ve been feeling stressed out, it’s important to know which foods to choose and which to avoid when it comes to combating stress and helping you to deal with feelings of anxiety. The best way to fight stress is to have a healthy, balanced diet which includes moderate amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas and lentils. Choosing these stress-busting foods will help to heal and calm your mind permanently, rather than providing a temporary fix.

Some of the best stress-fighting foods include:

Avocado – Avocados or alligator pears are a creamy and versatile fruits which can be eaten in a range of different ways whether you enjoy it raw, made into sauces, dressings and dips, or in a smoothie. These nutrient-dense fruits have the properties to stress-proof your body, thanks to their high glutathione content which specifically blocks the intestinal absorption of certain fats which cause oxidative damage. Avocados also contain higher levels of vitamin E, folate, and beta-carotene than any other fruit, which boosts their stress-busting properties. However, be careful with portion control when eating avocado, as it is high in fat and calorie dense.

Blueberries – If you’re feeling stressed out and reaching for snacks, swapping chocolate or chips for one of the best superfoods is a great way to help you deal with your stress levels and achieve a higher level of calm. Blueberries have some of the highest levels of antioxidants, especially anthocyanin. Anthocyanin in this berry has been linked to a wide range of health benefits including sharper cognition, better focus, and a clearer mind—all of which can help you to better deal with stress.

Chamomile Tea – Of course, it’s not all about what you’re eating when it comes to managing stress; what you’re drinking can also alleviate or worsen the stress you’re feeling. Drinking liquids which are high in sugars and caffeine, such as coffee, energy drinks or soda, can actually increase your stress levels if consumed regularly. Chamomile tea has long been used as a natural bedtime soother. It has been used in clinical trials, which determined that chamomile tea is effective in reducing the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder.

Chocolate – Although it’s usually seen as an unhealthy treat, there is an undeniable link between dark chocolate and our mood. Studies have shown that eating dark chocolate and cocoa can actually make you happier. However, that doesn’t mean that you can start munching on chocolate bars every time you’re stressed out. Dark chocolate works best as a de-stressor when eaten in moderation and as part of a healthy and balanced diet. One ounce of vegan dark chocolate (60% or more) is best for you as it contains more flavanols and polyphenols, two hugely important antioxidants which can help combat stress. According to a Harvard Health publication, milk chocolate and white chocolate do not have the antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties found in dark chocolate, and would not have the de-stressing effect. Just like avocado, chocolate is very high in fat, especially saturated fat, and portion size should be limited.

Oatmeal – Oatmeal is great in that it can be a filling comfort food, but also has a large number of healthy properties to actually make you feel better from the inside out. A complex carbohydrate, oatmeal can stimulate your brain to produce higher levels of the feel-good chemical serotonin. Serotonin can help you to feel calmer and less stressed.

Walnuts – If you’re looking for a healthy snacking option to control of your stress levels, walnuts are a great choice according to Penn State researchers. There is no denying the sweet, pleasant flavor of walnuts and they can be a tasty snack in-between meals or as part of a dessert. A one ounce (28 grams or 1/4 cup) serving is recommended.

Pistachios – Another food which is great for snacking and can also help to combat stress and anxiety in the long term is pistachios. Simply eating a snack-size portion of pistachios per day can lower vascular constriction when you are stressed, putting less pressure on your heart by further dilating your arteries. The rhythmic, repetitive act of shelling pistachios can actually be quite therapeutic!

Green Leafy Vegetables – Leafy greens should be a pivotal part of anyone’s diet. Along with helping to combat stress, leafy greens are full of nutrients and antioxidants which help to fight off disease and leave your body feeling healthier and more energized. Dark leafy greens, such as spinach or kale, are especially good for you. They are rich in folate and help your body to produce more mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ chemical. Making leafy greens a part of your diet will help you to feel happier and less stressed out overall.

Fermented foods – Eating fermented foods such as tempeh or a plant-based yogurt can help to keep your gut healthy, which in turn will help to improve your mental health, reduce stress and anxiety levels. The beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods have a direct effect on your brain chemistry by transmitting positive mood and behavior regulating signals to your brain via the vagus nerve.

Foods that Stoke Stress:

A study published in Culinary Medicine by Uma Naidoo, MD, author of the book, “This is Your Brain on Food,” concluded that foods and substances that contribute to stress and anxiety fall into three major categories: caffeine, alcohol and artificial sweeteners.

Caffeine: according to Dr. Naidoo, “caffeine overstimulates regions of the brain that process threat.” In her research, she has found that caffeine stimulates the region of the brain that “…is activated when a predator is closing in on you.” Further, the caffeine shuts down the part of the brain that regulates anxiety. Results of her studies show that less than 100 mg of caffeine per day (one small cup of coffee) had little to no effect on anxiety; 100-400 mg of caffeine per day (1-2 regular cups of coffee) showed mixed results. However, having over 400 mg of caffeine per day showed significant increases in anxiety. Spoiler alert: it was noted that one Starbucks venti contained 475 mg of caffeine, so drink with caution.

Alcohol: according to the study, “…the relaxation that alcohol provides comes at a significant price.” Dr. Naidoo states, “Regular alcohol intake can lead to significant disruption in sleep quality and this may be even more pronounced in people with anxiety. For those who suffer from social anxiety, Dr. Naidoo says, “Social anxiety more than quadruples the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.”

Artificial Sweeteners: research shows that artificial sweeteners can trigger anxiety and panic attacks. According to the Dr. Naidoo, artificial sweeteners increase the ‘bad’ gut bacteria and have a negative affect on anxiety. “Sweeteners like aspartame have been directly linked with anxiety and should be avoided, or at the very least used in moderation.”

In his video vignette, “The Effects of Animal Protein on the Stress Hormone,” Dr. Michael Greger, MD, compares the impact of two different meals on the levels of stress hormone in the blood. “A single meal high in animal protein can nearly double the level of stress hormone in the blood within a half hour of consumption. Instead, give someone some barley soup, and a vegetable stir-fry on rice, and the stress hormone level goes down after the meal.” He described the health outcome of constant intake of animal protein. “Imagine if you did the meat, fish, dairy meal-after-meal, day-after-day. You could chronically stimulate your stress response axis, and increase the release of vasoactive hormones that can increase your blood pressure. And, all that extra cortisol release has been linked to increased risk for elevated blood levels of insulin, triglycerides, and cholesterol.”

Putting it All Together

In prior articles on stress, we saw the negative consequences of chronic stress and learned simple techniques to tame our reactions in stressful situations. Here we are learning how the power of our fork can either “choke” or “stoke” our stress hormone. Reading and understanding the knowledge is the first step, putting the information into action may be more difficult.

If you need help in this area, give me a call. As a Lifestyle Medicine Health Coach, I will partner with you to improve your quality-of-life and attain self-directed, lasting changes. From personal training to whole food, plant-based coaching, I have the experience, knowledge and skills to help you attain and maintain optimal health and vitality.