Stress and Diet
Carolyn Classick-Kohn,MS,RD

Our personal reactions to such a stressful time are highly individual, but when it comes to diet and health, the consequences of stress is often uncontrolled eating or poor eating habits, which of course leads to weight gain, and can lead to a cycle of depression and poor health. This is true whether the source of stress is from a major life changing event, or is the result of a build-up of personal events. For those of you who tend to react to stress by eating more, it's very good  to focus on some positive reactions that won't lead to a cycle of unwanted weight gain. 

Structure Can Help 
If you're going through a tough time, whether it's your job, personal relationships, or the state of the world, if your reaction is to use food for comfort, it's time to get a diet plan that helps you get some control back into your life. If life is hectic, chances are you don't take much time to plan regular meals, you miss getting a good amount of sleep, and your energy level is low. All of this makes it very easy to just eat whatever is available and quick - poor food choices, high calorie snacks, fast food! While you may not have much control over the events that cause you stress, you have a lot of control over your reactions to them, including how much, and what you choose to eat.

At times like these, it's really important to build some structure into your eating habits. Some strategies that limit your choices of food and your opportunity to eat can really help when you don't have the time or mindset to think. Here's a few rules to help you keep it simple:

1. Try not to skip meals - eat at least three meals a day, with a few simple snacks. Although it may seem like a good idea to eat less often to lose weight, skipping meals too often and eating too little food actually stresses your body and mind more and reduces your energy when you need it most. Eating regular meals can help reduce the temptation to snack on junk foods, and to eat too much at one sitting. 

2. Try to eat at the same time each day
Develop a routine where you don't have to make too many extra decisions. Space your meals and snacks out about every three or four hours. If you haven't overeaten at the last meal, you will likely be hungry within about four hours. Eat smaller meals and snacks more often.

3. Separate eating from other things.
If you have a hectic schedule or stress makes you feel hurried, you will be tempted to eat while doing other things like driving, working, walking, etc. This can lead to overeating simply because you don't realize how much you've eaten because of the distractions. While this is always a very important habit that leads to healthy body weight, it is even more important if you are under a lot of stress. Hectic meals can lead to poor digestion, poor food choices, and feeling bad - which means more stress! "I don't have time to eat" is not an excuse - you have to make time to eat right or you won't have the energy to do whatever else is important to you!

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4. A stressful time may be a good time to eat in a very structured way - so buy healthy convenient meals.  Read the labels and follow the eating guidelines and rules for making the best choices when it comes to packaged foods. Some of these choices are really quite healthy, and they have the added benefit of being a very controlled amount of food, reducing the chance that you'll overeat.

5. Take a multivitamin.
While I am not a huge fan of supplemental foods and prefer that people get good nutrition through good foods, taking a multivitamin with adequate levels of Vitamins B and C, calcium, and zinc is not a bad idea, especially during stressful times, and especially if you're trying to reduce your calorie intake to lose weight. 

Too Much Stress to Diet?  Get Some Structure!Stress, Exercise & Dieting
I can't say enough about the positive effects of making sure that some physical activity is part of your daily routine. This is especially true if you feel particularly "stressed out". The short term effects of exercise actually increase the body's stress level - increased heart rate, increased need for fuel, stress on muscles and joints, increased blood pressure. But the opposite is true in the long term. People who exercise regularly typically have lower resting heart rates, better blood pressure, and a higher degree of fitness that helps their body cope with stressful events. "I don't have time for exercise" is no excuse.

Instead:

  • If you're not exercising now, build in just a few minutes every couple hours to get up, take a short walk, stretch, climb a few stairs, or do some simple calisthenics. Even a small amount of activity can help.
     

  • Build up to longer chunks of time and vary your activities, doing things that you enjoy.
     

  • When you have time off, try to plan some active events - hiking, skating, walking on the beach, tennis, golf  - whatever you enjoy that will increase your body's movement.
     

  • And of course, when you exercise, you're burning off that stress and reducing the stress hormones that build up when things get tense. Get rid of it!   
     

  • A word about overdoing it -
    I have heard from a lot of people who have included a lot of exercise into their daily routine in an effort to lose weight. Combined with reducing calories, there is that point where exercise and cutting down on food is counterproductive to health goals and can lead to more stress. If you're often very tired, have trouble sleeping, are losing weight very
    quickly, or have pain during exercise, you may be overdoing it. Check with your doctor if these things happen, you may need to adjust your routine.

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