Managing Stress

Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one. -Hans Selye

Stress is common!

Everyone has some sort of stress in his or her life. Seventy five percent of Americans report experiencing at least one symptom of stress such as depression, sadness, anxiety, fatigue and irritability. Common stressors include money, work, the economy, family responsibilities, and personal health concerns. Surprisingly, a 2007 poll by the American Psychological Association found that one-third of people in the US report experiencing extreme levels of stress.

At the same time, the rate of obesity continues to climb. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the rates of overweight and obesity in adults more than doubled in the past thirty years. Stress or emotional eating isn’t the only behavior that can pack on the pounds. Stressed people tend to not get enough sleep, exercise less, and/or drink more alcohol which all can lead to weight gain and poor overall health. In the end, how people manage stress can influence their health long term.

What happens when we aren’t managing stress?

Short term or long term stress; is there a difference? During acute (short term) bouts of stress, the body releases adrenaline which is involved in the fight or flight response. Increased heart rate and shunting blood from non-essential organs helps the body fight or flee a dangerous situation. Once the situation is resolved, hormone levels return to normal. Chronic (long term) stress results in the secretion of the hormone cortisol from the adrenal gland. Cortisol increases appetite, which can cause people to eat more food. Over time, this can lead to weight gain. Then, if the stress continues or is perceived as persisting, the stress response gets stuck in the “on position” keeping cortisol levels elevated.

Why managing stress is important to your health

Continued elevated cortisol levels affect the entire body. Cortisol decreases the effect of insulin (insulin resistance) which forces the pancreas to work overtime trying to keep up with the demand for insulin. This leads to chronically elevated blood sugars. If the sugar is in the blood stream and not the cell, the cells cannot get the energy they need.

Weight gain is another result of elevated cortisol. Storing more fat and suppressing insulin send messages to the brain which increases hunger. This increased hunger often leads to overeating. Because of poor lifestyle choices, chronic inflammation promotes increased cortisol levels which puts a strain on the immune system. Digestion is also disrupted when the intestines become inflamed and irritated. Ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and colitis are more common with stress. Increased cortisol levels can also contribute to high blood pressure and plaque buildup in the arteries. These are the results of the continual cycle of poorly managed chronic stress.

Managing stress with nutrition

Under stress, you might be more likely to reach for the doughnuts or potato chips over the apple. Studies have shown that those who had a higher rate of perceived stress had a higher fat intake and were less active. A study from the University of Michigan showed that when levels of the stress hormone cortisol where boosted, healthy non-stressed adults ate more snack foods. One-third of Americans report eating too much and/or choosing unhealthy foods due to stress. Emotional eaters gravitate towards high fat, high sugar comfort foods. Studies have shown that emotional and physiological stress factors may contribute to obesity in men and women.

Emotional or stress eating may become a habit that changes how you eat.  “The food drives your behavior and your behavior drives your food choices,” says Susan Kleiner, PhD, Rd,  the author of The Good Mood Diet. RDNs play an important role in managing stress by promoting a healthy, balanced meal plan using a balance of minimally processed foods; encouraging increased physical activity; and discussing stress management with clients. Minimizing stress may need a team approach for some and that is where the mental health experts help sort out the details if needed.

As an RDN, I work with people on a daily basis who are trying to manage emotional or stress eating. Whether it is comfort food to calm you, or a boost of sugar to energize you, these make you feel better short term, then worse later. The best approach to manage cortisol levels is to work on managing stress and optimizing your diet.

Suggestions for managing stress

Meditate:  Studies have shown that meditation decreases stress. It might also help people be more mindful of food choices.

Exercise more:  Low intensity exercise such as walking can lower cortisol levels.

Visit with friends:  Social support helps decrease stress. Sometimes it just helps just to, “talk it out.”

Advancing inflammation

Many clients ask about the anti-inflammatory diet. There are foods that promote inflammation and others that decrease inflammation. There is no one perfect anti-inflammatory diet. Minimizing pro-inflammatory foods can help control inflammation. The following is a general list of factors that promote inflammation:

  • High glycemic load
  • Saturated and trans fatty acids
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol in excess
  • Insufficient intake of micronutrients and antioxidants
  • Low fiber diet
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Overweight or obesity

Minimizing inflammation

To minimize inflammation, the following are recommended:

  • A low glycemic load diet
  • Elimination of trans fats and minimal intake of saturated fats
  • Elimination or reduction of caffeine
  • Abstaining or moderating alcohol intake
  • Increased consumption of whole plant foods to increase fiber, antioxidant,  phytonutrient intake via vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans.
  • Getting the recommended amounts of omega-3 fatty acids
  • Regular exercise

Managing stress and emotional eating

The cycle of stress or emotional eating can be broken with some of the following ideas:

Build a good foundation nutritionally:

Eat every four to five hours throughout the day to keep your mood stable. Make sure you include protein with your meals and snacks to help keep you satisfied.

Eat complex carbohydrates: 

Oatmeal, whole grains, brown rice, vegetables, beans, fruits, and low fat/non fat dairy are great choices. The brain needs these carbohydrates to make the feel good chemical serotonin. Small amounts of healthy fats from olives, avocados, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish also help.

Recognize what is happening:

During a stressful situation take a second to think why you are stressed. Many are in the habit of reaching for food in hopes of pushing away the negative feelings. Stop for a minute and ask yourself:  Am I hungry? Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 not being hungry and 10 being ravenous.)

Practice Mindful Eating:

Become more aware of the “why” behind your eating habits. Mindful eating encourages you to use your senses to choose foods that nourish and satisfy you. I tell clients they should look at, smell, and taste their food. The next time you take a bite of pizza, close your eyes and really taste your food.  You should be able to taste the crust, enjoy the sauce, know what type of cheese and toppings are on the pizza. Get in touch with your body’s physical signs of being full and hungry.  This will help you decide when to eat and when to stop.

Have a backup plan: 

Stress or emotional eating usually hits suddenly and without warning. Keep healthy snacks readily available. Try 100 calorie packs of nuts, fresh fruit, or cut up veggies. If possible, try eating protein with a complex carbohydrate. Peanut butter on an apple or a slice of cheese with some whole grain crackers are two good options.

Out of sight, out of mind:

Not surprisingly, research shows that if the food is not easily accessible or out of sight, this decreases temptation. Store snack foods high up on a shelf in the back of the pantry. Put the ice cream on the bottom shelf of the freezer behind the frozen vegetables. When food shopping, follow to the perimeter, stick to the shopping list, and don’t shop when hungry.

Find non-food fixes:

Stress will always be there. Have two or three options to handle stressful situations that don’t involve food. Going for a short walk, deep breathing, playing with your pets, listening to music, reading, or calling a friend are all good options. Find what works for you.

How we can help you in managing stress

Once you find healthier alternatives, you will feel more in control.  The RDNs at Main Line Nutrition understand that life can be stressful and that many people turn to food for comfort.  We have years of experience working with clients. We can help you to set up meal plans and realistic goals to help with managing life’s stressors.

Check out our menu planner that offers a 5 day anti-inflammatory meal plan. All nutrition recommendations need to be individualized to meet each client’s condition, preferences, and goals. If you have further questions about stress eating and/or want to know how we can help you, please call 484-872-2909 or e-mail us at

Written by Christine Babey MS, RDN, CDE. Christine has a passion to work with the fabulous 50+ generation! She is a Certified Diabetes Educator. Christine specializes with post-menopausal women to help achieve optimal health. Set an initial appointment or free phone consultation with Christine here.

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