Stress relief from crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks might be an easy option you’re at your desk, but they make make you feel worse, says nutritional therapist Charlotte Watts, co-author of new book Good Mood Food
Some days the pressure can seem high and if you’re stuck behind a desk, it is easy for our relationship with food to become unstuck pretty quickly.
As stress is our mind-body survival mechanism, when stress hits and becomes chronic, our brain shouts out signals to ‘fuel up’; a self-protective measure so we have the immediate energy to be able to run away or stand our ground – ‘fight or flight’.
So guess what we can crave as the quick-fix answer? Yup, sugar as instant fuel, but also that heady combination of sugar and junk fats; which is why we can suddenly crave crisps, cake, biscuits and chocolate when it all gets too much.
Giving in to this isn’t simply a matter of willpower, this is your biochemistry at play, but recognising the mechanisms happening helps us come out of loops of sugar craving and bingeing that can stop us coping with the very stress that caused them.
Those ‘comfort’ foods provoke highs and lows of blood sugar that come with similar ups and downs of energy and mood, making it harder to get through the day and adapt to the inevitable challenges along the way.
Having foods to hand that both balance blood sugar and some that provide the sweetness we crave without the negative consequences can actually help us cope with stress.
Good protein and healthy fats level out sugar supplies to the brain and whole foods rather than overly processed ones provide the B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and other nutrients our brains need to operate fully. Moreover, being sure we eat a decent lunch means we don’t suddenly have a blood sugar dip mid-afternoon that overrides any good intentions that we had.
Here’s a list of the best snacks and light meals to help you through the day:
Stress relief food #1. Celery with nut butter
Celery contains a calming chemical called apigenin that soothes your whole nervous system. It also takes much chewing so releases tension commonly held in the jaw from the stress response. Filling its little groove with any nut butter of your choice (almond, hazelnut or cashew are good) adds in the protein and fats that satisfy your brains craving for fuel.
Stress relief food #2. Instant miso
You can buy individual sachets of miso powder or paste in most health food shops or large supermarkets. This Japanese fermented soy paste is a staple in their diets and as well as a great source of protein helps balance female hormones, if they are a factor in any difficulty coping with the day, or week. The savoury taste and warm mug or bowlful is comforting and they come with metabolism supporting seaweed or mushrooms.
Stress relief food #3. Dried mango
If you want an alternative to a bag of sweets, this is your answer. Mango has a beautiful rich, sweet taste and the dried version releases its sugars less quickly than many other dried fruits. It is high in soluble fibre to balance blood sugar levels and as needs lots of chewing can also soothe the brain and a tense head.
Stress relief food #4. Avocado
As a basis for a light meal, half an avocado is a natural bowl of brain-supporting fats that you can fill with a multitude of delicious things. When we crave sugar, our agitated brain chemistry can be soothed by fats and that doesn’t send us off into spirals of fat-craving when these are those we need to function, such as the monounsaturated fats in avocadoes; also in nuts and olives. Fill with olive oil, seeds, goat’s cheese, houmous… or anything else you can experiment with!
Stress relief food #5. Frittata
Eggs are the most bioavailable protein we can eat; this means that we can absorb and utilise them most easily. A frittata is like an omelette but thicker and can be packed full of vegetables (spinach, red peppers, asparagus or onion work well) and flavourings such as turmeric, cumin, goat’s cheese, seeds and herbs. Particularly if you live alone (or eat other foods to your family!) it can be really helpful to make a big frittata and eat it over a few days at any meal. You can also add some salad leaves such as watercress, spinach and rocket for a bigger meal and more veg to give you the minerals your body needs to come down from the stress response.
Stress relief food #6. Tamari cashews
For a nut snack with more satisfaction for the brain, mixing cashews with tamari (Japanese gluten-free soy sauce) adds a savoury or umami taste – like marmite or gravy – that registers appetite satiety to interrupt cravings.
They are very simple to make; simply cover them with tamari (about 3 cups nuts to 2 tablespoons tamari) and then roast for 25 minutes at 170 degrees celsius. Don’t shy away from nuts as too high in fat; they contain fats we need to thrive and those who eat them regularly have shown to put on less weight; probably as they reduce sugar quantities eaten.
Stress relief food #7. Rye crackers
These are an incredibly useful vessel for a host of toppings that doesn’t involve yet more wheat. This is a blessing for stress-coping for those with sensitive digestion or immunity as wheat is a burden on the digestive tract and, let’s face it, is the main choice in most places that sell convenience food.
Rye still has some gluten, the sticky protein (ie ‘glue’) that is so bothersome for our digestion, but tends to be better tolerated and sourdough rye crackers (or bread) have been fermented to reduce its effects. Load up with houmous, nut butters, goat’s cheese, avocado, artichoke, beetroot or others dips; or even denser protein (if you partake) such as free-range meat or boiled egg if you have strong sugar cravings, brain fog or energy dips.
Stress relief food #8. Coconut flakes or chunks
A very simple snack that can really help with sugar urges. Coconut contains fats called MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides) that we can’t store as fat, but that raise metabolism as we have to process them immediately. They have a subtle sweetness that satisfies that desire, but actually help us balance blood sugar and even out energy and concentration.
Stress relief food #9. Soup, stew or curry
Investing in a food thermos flask can help both your nutrition and your budgeting. This is a wide flask designed to keep more liquid foods warm and many have a handy spoon in the lid to be able to have on the go (such as on the train) and resist spending yet more on convenience food in shops.
This means that you can either prepare your own sup, stew or curry with loads of vegetables, pulses, garlic and onions or buy a good quality pre-prepared one, which you can always add more leaves or some frozen spinach to up your green vegetable intake. If you slow-cook your own, this helps you absorb the nutrients to your gut wall most easily and most naturally hydrates you for body tissues to cope with stress.
Stress relief food #10. Dark chocolate
Sometimes we simply want some dark chocolate and that is fair enough. A study showed that 40g a day helped people cope with stress, so that can be a highly viable snack. This can be very useful if you have a habit of an afternoon ‘sweet treat’ that you want to change – allowing yourself to have some in the form of this healthier alternative can stop it seeming like a ‘fight’ where you can win or lose (and often involving stress-inducing guilt, shame or self-criticism). Simply choose good quality – with nuts is great for a bit of extra protein – have some and thoroughly enjoy!
Stress relief food #11. Baked potato
No, you don’t have to bake it at work, white or sweet potatoes keep really well in thermos flasks where they get beautifully marinated in the butter or olive oil spread mixed in and any cheese, spring onion, beans or other topping you might like. This is particularly good if you exercise a lot and need a bit of starch at lunchtime or to intercept mid-afternoon sugar cravings.
Stress relief food #12. Basic salad with lettuce
Lettuce, like celery, is high in the soothing chemical apigenin, so having a packed lunch with a hefty bed of gem, cos or romaine lettuce isn’t simply ‘rabbit food’, but has a very real effect on our ability to cope. Getting in the habit of preparing salads creates a stride that is easy to continue (or get back to) if you’ve got used to buying shop-bought salads.
You can put more into your own and add more interesting ingredients such as artichokes, raw fennel, grated carrot or beetroot, roasted vegetables, pine nuts or seeds, capers etc etc… a simple dressing of olive oil and either lemon juice or apple cider vinegar supports your digestion, the basis of how you cope with input coming into your internal world. Then you can add whichever protein works for you; tofu slices, egg, free-range meat or goat’s cheese.
Stress relief food #13. Date and nut balls
Bliss balls are so simply to make, you’ll wonder why you spend so much money on the commercial versions.
If you start with a basis of blending the same volume of nuts (cashews or Brazils work really well as so creamy) with the same of dates, you can then add other ingredients to your heart’s delight.
Try coconut, cinnamon, ginger or peanut butter for example. The dates are concentrated sweetness to satisfy a sweet tooth, but they are rich in blood-sugar supporting soluble fibre and minerals, and have been shown to support the beneficial bacteria in the gut that helps us cope with stress.
Stress relief food #14. Yoghurt, berries and cinnamon
This can be a great filling for the pancakes above or a bowl of satisfying goodness in its own right. You can use plain Greek yoghurt or coconut yoghurt, but please choose full-fat to ensure the health fats that soothe and satisfy the brain.
The yoghurt is a great vehicle for sweet-tasting ingredients that support, rather than upset blood sugar levels. Berries are the best choice fruit as actively reduce tendencies for blood-sugar spikes after meals and cinnamon signals to the brain that you’ve had something sweet, but actually helps sugar move into cells for energy.
Stress relief food #15. Rice salad
A salad with a base of rice can be an excellent convenience food as freezes really well. If you boil or steam either brown Basmati or a mixture of that and wild rice (or Camargue is chock-full of antioxidants) and then mix in with vegetables, salads bits, seeds and olive oil, you can freeze in portions and it can defrost over the morning to be ready and stay chilled for lunchtime. Add stock or other flavourings such as tamari, tamarind, curry spices or herbs for extra interest.
Stress relief food #16. Green smoothie
A decent blender is more of a feature in kitchens these days and good to keep out on the side, so you don’t forget its existence in the cupboard and actually use…. You don’t need a smorgasbord of faddy ingredients to get a rich fill of nutrients – one of the best thick green smoothies is from pretty usual ingredients as a base and you can then add in any therapeutics (like herbal tinctures, green powders or bee pollen) that you like.
Blend a base of coconut water, with a celery stalk, half an avocado, some berries and a little Manuka or other quality honey to taste. Adding ginger will pep up the taste and support your circulation, a base of cold camomile tea will soothe and fresh herbs such as mint or basil will calm an agitated gut. For more green add any salad leaves or frozen spinach to chill.
Stress relief food #17. Trail mix with cacao nibs and goji berries
You can buy commercial versions of this delicious snack in health food shops, but it is so easy to rustle up your own from your favourite nuts, and the quantities of goji berries and cocoa nibs that work for you. Cocoa is raw chocolate that satisfies a want, but doesn’t over-caffeinate for those who are sensitive to the stimulating properties of dark chocolate. It is extremely high in immune-supporting antioxidants, as are goji berries and nuts – crucial if you are under stress as the stress hormone cortisol can suppress our immune defences.
Charlotte Watts is a nutritional therapist and yoga teacher, and winner of the 2012 CAM Award for Outstanding Practice. She writes regularly for the national press, and is the author of Good Mood Food: Unlock the power of diet to think and feel well, [£9.90] published by Nourish in December.