A nutritionist explains how these ingredients can address holistic issues that influence your stress levels.
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If you've ever reached for a bowl of chips or a chocolate bar after a tough day, you're not alone—eating is a coping mechanism for those who often are dealing with heightened stress. But did you know that the foods you eat and your diet as a whole can also have a roundabout way of affecting your stress levels? Research suggests there's an established link between our moods, overall happiness, and our lifespan. Supercharging your diet over time can combat other health issues that contribute to overall stress levels throughout the body.
Keri Gans, MS, RDN, is one of many health professionals who suggests that several lifestyle factors can greatly impact our stress levels. "You're not going to eat a single food, and suddenly all of your stress is going to disappear. But there are several factors at play here that could influence how we feel, and our stress levels overall," says Gans, a nutrition consultant and the author of The Small Change Diet. "What we're eating and drinking every day, and the amount of physical activity we enjoy, these are the pillars of our life that can help to alleviate stress over time."
For those who are dealing with chronic stress, Gans advises taking a look at the staple ingredients that you often turn to in the kitchen. "We should be eating more foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals, which help us meet nutritional guidelines but also could possibly help us combat the effects of some of the stress we're experiencing in our lives," Gans says. Factors like cardiovascular health, inflammation in the gut, and even sleep can affect how our body processes stress hormones, Gans says. "If you're not getting any sleep and not taking good care of yourself overall, diet could help, but you also need to address these issues as well," she says. "If you're not eating well and experiencing stress, it's adding salt to the wound."
So, what should you be eating to help beat stress? Here, Gans shares the top seven foods to stock your kitchen with.
The very first item on Gans' list is swapping out enriched carbohydrates with whole grain options—including pasta. "Yes, I'm saying pasta—choosing to eat 100 percent whole grains, from bread to oatmeal and beyond, could help your body regulate stress due to a certain byproduct," Gans says. Pure whole-wheat products naturally contain an amino acid called tryptophan, which is consumed and then converted to serotonin, commonly known as the "feel good" hormone. According to Gans, regularly consuming tryptophan found in rich whole grains could offset stress levels by upping serotonin production naturally.
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Gans say these two must-haves, which are also made of rich, whole grains, are chock full of fiber. Fiber can address satiety issues, where people may feel hungrier throughout the day even though they've enjoyed three full meals and snacks. "A lot of times people get stressed during the day, and when you feel hungry, you could choose to eat foods that make you feel more satisfied rather than those that are truly good for you," Gans says. Adding a whole-grain side to lunch or dinner is simple for any home cook.
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Salmon is indeed a powerhouse ingredient, Gans says—in addition to being high in protein and vitamin B, salmon is also the first item that comes to mind for high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Previously published research has linked fatty acids to decreased of anxiety and depression, and upping your intake of these essential nutrients could help relieve stress over time, Gans says.
Salmon isn't the only option for incorporating more omega 3 fatty acids into your diet. The most important omega 3 acids to target in relation to stress is known as DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid. "These foods that contain omega 3 DHA acids could help relax a person," Gans says, citing early research that suggests acids found in fish oils may reduce stress levels over time. Trout, herring, and sardines are all great options to cook with, but Gans likes Chilean sea bass best. It's a buttery fish that's readily available and contains less sodium overall, which makes it a better choice for routine weeknight dinners.
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"There's a good chance that you already love eating avocado—which is good, since they're rich in B vitamins," Gans says. These vitamins, which are found throughout many food groups, are associated with being stress relievers and stabilizing our mood, according to Gans. Each avocado contains higher than average concentrations of vitamins C, K, E, and B-6, and are also good sources of magnesium and potassium.
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They're a delicious snack—and they pack high amounts of antioxidants, vitamin E, and magnesium, which have been associated with a decrease in stress, Gans says. "Antioxidants work against free radicals in our body, whereas magnesium directly works in the brain to assist with different hormone regulations," says Gans, citing research that suggests more than 60 percent of Americans don't receive enough magnesium through their diets. "If you're lacking magnesium and you focus on increasing consumption through diet, there's an association with a decrease in stress levels later on."
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Just one cup of raspberries can provide more than half the amount of vitamin C you need per day, but Gans says you can find vitamin C naturally in most fruits that are in season. "Vitamin C levels have been associated with a reduction in cortisone levels, and decreasing those levels can work to alleviate stress," Gans says