Late for a friend's party, you dash into a supermarket to pick up a bottle of wine. You had a bad day at work with no time for lunch -- and now you're stuck behind a screaming baby in the slowest imaginable checkout line.
Your nerves shot, you need a quick fix -- something to munch on the run. You grab the nearest candy bar, rationalizing that you can always eat better tomorrow when you're feeling a bit more calm.
But tomorrow's sense of serenity never comes. In fact, you only feel more on edge. It's a pattern that many fall into: Today's stress prompts impulsive eating choices that only make us less equipped to cope tomorrow. As convenient as those sugary, salty, fatty foods and caffeinated drinks are, they don't do us any favors when it comes to stress.
"A long-term diet low in nutrients can deplete your reserves of minerals and vitamins," says Narmin Virani, R.D., L.D.N., a clinical dietician at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "These nutrients go a long way in helping you pull through stressful situations." And without them, the going simply gets tougher.
Food can hardly take all the blame for boosting stress levels, nor can it fix the problem all by itself. But experts believe good nutrition is an important piece of the stress puzzle.
Everyone knows food is fuel for the body, and when we're stressed, says Victoria Maizes, M.D., executive director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, "we need to focus on having better fuel."
Certain choices work preventive magic for staying balanced; others have the opposite effect. Breaking the cycle means limiting the worst offenders in your diet -- and replacing them with power foods that go the distance, no matter what life throws at you.
Physiologically speaking, you react to everyday stressors in ways that make junk food, like chocolate bars, cookies, and chips, all the more tempting.
Take the supermarket scenario: From the crying baby to the fact that you're late, your agitation increases the longer you stand in line. Your body responds by releasing a stress hormone called cortisol, which, in turn, triggers the release of neuropeptide Y and galanin, two neurotransmitters (the brain chemicals that affect your mood, keep you alert, and boost energy) that make you increasingly hungry for sugary and fatty foods, respectively. At the same time, cortisol suppresses serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter that helps keep depression and anxiety under control. All of these biological factors make healthy eating that much harder.
Banish Fast Food
Start your less-stress eating plan with a gradual reduction of processed foods and refined carbs, which rank among the greatest stress culprits. Limit -- or, even better, eliminate -- fast foods, too. The trans fatty acids most fast foods contain actually reduce circulation and raise blood pressure, keeping your body in a constant state of stress. Sweets, meanwhile, raise your insulin levels.
"Sugary foods increase serotonin, but it's just temporary," says Mary Horn, director of nutrition and exercise science at Miraval Resort in Tucson. "They take our moods up, then crash them right back down again."
The best way to banish unhealthy fare? Make time each day, no matter how busy, to sit down for at least three nutritious meals to prevent hunger from sending you to the nearest drive-thru.
Keep healthy options at the ready for when you're stuck in line (stash fresh fruit or unsalted cashews in your bag, for instance), and purge temptations from the house, the office drawer, the glove compartment, or anywhere else they'll entice you.
Rethink Your Drinks
Don't discount the role of liquids in your dietary audit. You may turn to caffeine to jumpstart a sluggish day, but it can do more harm than good because it boosts the production of adrenaline, another stress hormone.
"With caffeine, you're basically putting a stimulant that makes people feel jittery and wired into a body that's already tending toward feeling jittery and wired," says Maizes. If you're sensitive to caffeine but can't fathom giving up that morning jump-start, at least drink your cup of joe with a balanced meal and before noon so it doesn't interfere with your sleep come nightfall.
Even better, try replacing one cup of coffee with green, black, or oolong tea; each contains caffeine, but also L-theanine, an amino acid that helps to ease tension. As for alcohol, keep it to a glass of wine with dinner. Again, the problem comes down to sleep.
"Alcohol upsets the blood sugar level and disturbs sleep patterns," says Horn. "If you don't sleep enough, you're not giving your body the time to re-establish its equilibrium, which is another thing that produces stress."
Now for the good stuff. Make your revamp of the food-stress cycle complete with an emphasis on whole foods (meaning unprocessed and unrefined), and eat them in frequent enough intervals to ward off fatigue and irritability. They'll help your body mellow existing stress and anxiety and set you on the right path for overall health.
Balance It Out
A high-fiber, low-sugar breakfast is especially crucial because it gradually raises your insulin level, leaving you in good shape for the rest of the day. No matter what meal you're planning, though, strike a caloric balance of lean protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates (Andrew Weil, M.D., integrative medicine expert and author of "Healthy Aging," recommends a 20:30:50 percent ratio of the three). Together, these macronutrients stabilize your blood sugar, leaving you less likely to feel famished and desperate for that bag of chips.
Cover Your Bases
Hone in on nutrients most known to boost stress-coping ability. Incorporate more foods containing B vitamins, folate, omega-3 fatty acids, and magnesium, as deficiencies in these nutrients are linked to depression -- and inevitably more stress.
Magnesium, for instance, helps muscles relax, helps you fall asleep, and stimulates production of GABA, a neurotransmitter that eases anxiety and nervousness. Stress also prompts your body to excrete more vitamin C, so add a few extra berries to your morning oatmeal. And increase your antioxidants: Cortisol sets off chain reactions in the body that can damage brain cells and memory; antioxidants help fight that damage.
Eat for Life
As you enjoy the newfound energy your anti-stress food plan gives you, remember that when it comes to controlling emotions, how you eat is just as important as what you eat. "When we look at the whole picture of food and stress and mood, we need to include a lot more than just avoiding junk food," says Horn.
Jack Challem, personal nutrition coach and author of "The Food-Mood Solution," agrees: "Part of this process comes down to two words: Be mindful," he says. "People forget this all the time, especially when they're swept up by stress."
So for your next meal, don't rush a quick bite over the kitchen sink. Sit down and savor the tastes in each forkful, and eat slowly. The brain takes 20 minutes to sense fullness, so fast eaters tend to eat more than necessary -- and often wind up with an uncomfortably full belly, not to mention an aftertaste of guilt.
Also, pay attention to why you're eating. You could truly be hungry, but make sure it's not just a case of loneliness, boredom, or anxiety. Make a ritual out of eating mindfully, and you'll have a new tool for staying calm and balanced.