How to eat healthy to beat stress and depression

Is there a way to beat stress and depression by eating healthy?
Some foods really can help relieve stress and anxiety. What you eat has a direct impact on the way you feel. There are terrific foods that bring real, long-lasting comfort when we are at risk of, or struggling with, stress or depression.




When you have a bad day and feel depressed and stressful, we have a tendency to reach for unhealthful comfort food when stressed or depressed. The choice you make at the plate absolutely influences how you're going to feel," says Kathie Swift, MS, RD, LDN, co-director of the Food as Medicine program of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC. "Food is a very powerful modifier when it comes to depression and the brain."

What we think is good for mood?
Macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies, fried chicken, ice cream—these are some of the foods women turn to for comfort when feeling emotionally strained, depleted or depressed. These foods can make us feel better for a few minutes, until the negative mood swings back into action. That's often a result of the way certain foods raise and lower blood sugar or disrupt our bodily systems in other ways. Eating too much of one type of food or not enough of a certain nutrient can have both short- and long-term effects on mood.

Stressful events—and they don't even have to be big, just the daily hassles of life—cause our cortisol levels to rise. Cortisol causes food cravings, and in women those cravings tend to be strongest for carbs, especially sweet foods, according to researchers at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center. 

How we get effected by unhealthy eating?
The more of them we eat, the worse our mood gets. As if that weren't bad enough, the cortisol then makes more trouble for us, triggering an enzyme in our fat cells (it converts cortisone to more cortisol). Since our visceral fat cells (the ones in our abdomen, packed around our vital organs) have more of these enzymes than the subcutaneous fat cells (the fat on our thighs and butts, for example), stress causes many women to accumulate more belly fat. 

The more stress, the more this abdominal, or central, obesity occurs. Some research has found that these belly fat cells, which have been linked to a greater risk for heart disease and diabetes, have four times as many cortisol receptors as regular fat cells.

What to eat?
So when I talk about calming foods, I don't mean so-called comfort foods. I mean meals and snacks that will truly soothe and calm you. Whether it's because of the specific nutrients they provide or the steady, reliable source of energy they give you, they'll get you through the day feeling focused, even, and balanced—so you'll have the ability to conquer anything.

Aim for a balanced diet of low-fat protein, complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables. Reduce your intake of foods that can adversely affect your brain and mood, such as caffeine, alcohol, trans fats, saturated fats, and foods with high levels of chemical preservatives or hormones (such as certain meats).

Don’t skip meals. Going too long between meals can make you feel irritable and tired, so aim to eat something at least every three to four hours.

Minimize sugar and refined carbs. You may crave sugary snacks, baked goods, or comfort foods such as pasta or French fries, but these “feel-good” foods quickly lead to a crash in mood and energy.

Focus on complex carbohydrates. Foods such as baked potatoes, whole-wheat pasta, oatmeal, and whole grain breads can boost serotonin levels without a crash.

Boost your B vitamins. Deficiencies in B vitamins such as folic acid and B-12 can trigger depression. To get more, take a B-complex vitamin supplement or eat more citrus fruit, leafy greens, beans, chicken, and eggs.

Try super-foods rich in nutrients that can boost mood, such as bananas (magnesium to decrease anxiety, vitamin B6 to promote alertness, tryptophan to boost feel-good serotonin levels), brown rice (serotonin, thiamine to support sociability), and spinach (magnesium, folate to reduce agitation and improve sleep).

Consider taking a chromium supplement. Some depression studies show that chromium picolinate reduces carbohydrate cravings, eases mood swings, and boosts energy. Supplementing with chromium picolinate is especially effective for people who tend to overeat and oversleep when depressed.

Omega-3 fatty acids play an essential role in stabilizing mood.
Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats called EPA and DHA can give your mood a big boost. The best sources are fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and some cold-water fish oil supplements. Canned albacore tuna and lake trout can also be good sources, depending on how the fish were raised and processed. When cooking fish, grill or bake rather than fry.

You may hear a lot about getting your omega-3s from foods rich in ALA fatty acids, such as vegetable oils and nuts (especially walnuts), flax, soybeans, and tofu. Be aware that our bodies generally convert very little ALA into EPA and DHA, so you may not see as big of a benefit.

Some people avoid seafood because they worry about mercury or other possible toxins, but most experts agree that the benefits of eating one or two servings a week of cold-water fatty fish outweigh the risks.

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