Stress: the downside of being an adult, and of work (even when we like our jobs). Bad drivers, uncooperative co-workers, high-maintenance clients, illness, and inclement weather—stressors, work-related or not, are just a part of everyday life.
“When you don’t feel your best, it’s hard to combat the inevitable stressors that meet you,” says Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “And you don’t feel your best after a meal that doesn’t nourish you.”
Of course, it’s when you’re stressed that you probably most want to chow down on a Bic Mac and fries, or a super-sized bag of Doritos, or M&M’s. But if you could eat better before the stressors came, and it would be able to actually help handle them better…why not try it?
Arm Yourself for the Day
“When you eat a balanced diet that has fiber, protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats, you minimize those dips and spikes in blood sugar that make it difficult to weather a stressful day,” says Malkani. “It arms you with the best possible energy levels and mood.”
Malkani claims a better diet can help on a day-to-day and even a meal-to-meal basis. For example, “A nicely-balanced breakfast can give you four to five hours of stable energy levels and a stable mood to carry you through the next meal. Eating a healthy diet that’s nutrient-dense and high-fiber, that is minimally processed, really can help us to best handle stress.”
The ideal nicely -balanced breakfast? “Oatmeal,” says Malkani, “because it’s filling and contains macronutrients, like complex carbs and fiber.” She suggests stirring in a tablespoon of peanut butter for healthy fat and protein, or having a hard-boiled egg on the side. You can also throw some blueberries on top, or pour in a little milk or soy milk for another source of protein.
Boom! You have a meal packed with macro- and micronutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals), all in one bowl.
Avoid Blood Sugar Spikes in the P.M.
Certain lunches, like a big bowl of white-flour pasta and a Coke, will do a number on your energy and mood, according to Malkani. “You have a lot of sugar and carbs. But there’s no fiber or protein or healthy fat to anchor it in your digestive system, slow the rate of digestion and the rate of sugar reaching your bloodstream fast, causing you to crash.”
Then you’ll likely be hungry again a half-hour later, according to Malkani, which can lead to overeating between meals. It can also trigger hormonal responses that create more hunger and food cravings (which means more sugar spikes and crashes).
A Big Mac—which contains some protein and carbs but little fiber—may have more of a macronutrient balance than the pasta bomb, “but it has no micronutrients to nourish the body and help it thrive,” says Malkani, “so you’re filling up with empty calories.”
Meat is neat, but plants are better
Malkani urges everyone to integrate more plant-based meals into your diet for more energy and less stress.
“You don’t have to be vegetarian or vegan,” she says. “However, in terms of optimizing the body and feeling your best, plant-based has been proven to be a really beneficial way to eat.”
For lunch, Malkani suggests batch-cooking on weekends or making extra dinner and packing the leftovers for the next day. Malkani recommends trying whole-grain pasta, or even chickpea or another bean-based pasta, which are popping up in most supermarkets now in the “healthy” aisle. While you cook it, toss some spinach, a little garlic, some canned white beans, and plenty of olive oil in a pan (and don’t forget the salt)—then mix it all together.
“You’ve got a winning combination of plant-based protein, tons of fiber and complex carbs, plus healthy fat in olive oil and no shortage of flavor.” And it’s easy to pack: just throw it in the microwave and then store in a hot-cold cooler for lunch.
Your snacks may also play a part in increasing or reducing stress on your body, which might translate quickly to lethargy and mental stress. “Blood sugar spikes are very real,” Malkani says, “and they affect the body almost directly after you eat the food.”
Malkani challenges workers in the field or the office to an experiment: eat hummus and carrots for a snack instead of a candy bar two or three days a week.
“I think people would be amazed at how much better equipped they feel to handle the inevitable issues that get thrown at us on a daily basis,” says Malkani.
“You can’t control stress, but what you can control is the state of your body and its ability to handle the stress because of how you treat it.”