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Eating to Reduce Holiday Stress

Nov 16, 2016

There are some extras that go along with the holidays—parties, gift-buying, travel and pulling off family traditions.  When you add these to the rush of normal daily life, it can leave a major case of stress.  Did you know that stress can be aggravated by your diet?  Did you also know that many holiday foods are full of stress-offenders?

Stress is neither good nor bad.  As a motivator, short-term stress allows us to accomplish tasks and do amazing things in an emergency.  Prolonged stress can have a negative impact on our health, especially if we are already at high risk with other conditions, particularly diabetes and heart disease.

The two primary stress hormones are adrenaline and cortisol.  Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

These hormone levels are affected by what you eat. Certain foods and nutrients can help reduce stress, prevent blood sugar spikes and improve your mood:

  • Serotonin, a feel-good hormone, is increased by eating carbohydrates, but stick to whole grains and complex carbs to release it consistently throughout the day.
  • Cortisol is raised by high sodium and processed foods like chips and crackers. To help reduce cortisol levels, munch on unsalted nuts and carrots, peppers or cucumbers with hummus. Magnesium, found in nuts, dark leafy greens and beans, can help keep cortisol levels low and prevent headaches and fatigue.
  • Galanin, a neurotransmitter whose levels tend to rise in the afternoon, causes those cravings for high-fat, high-calorie sweet or salty snacks. Skip that trip to the vending machine and take a brisk walk instead. Physical activity reduces galanin levels, helping you to choose a healthier afternoon snack.

A list of stress-busting foods would include whole grains, legumes, low-fat milk (the tryptophan is converted to serotonin), blueberries, avocados and almonds.  Throw in green tea, dark chocolate, oranges and Omega-3 foods like salmon, tuna and walnuts, and the body is fortified with nutrients to help it handle holiday stress overload.

On the down-side, foods “not” to eat include caffeinated coffee or tea, energy and sugary drinks.  Cookies, cakes, pies and candies, as well as spicy foods, deep-fried anything and processed foods (high in sodium and additives) can intensify stress.

Unfortunately, typical holiday treats include many of these items.  So added to the stress of potential weight gain from consuming all those calories is the new knowledge that these foods also magnify emotional stress.  Other than abstaining completely—and few of us want to do that—what are some practical ways to minimize their effect on weight and hormone levels?

Limit your exposure.  Enjoy the holiday meals, but afterward refuse to take home calorie-laden, stress-enhancing leftovers.  If the meal was at your home, get rid of those leftovers.

Return to a healthy eating routine as soon as possible.  One meal does not have to lead to a three- or four-day binge of poor eating.

Include healthier choices in the menu.  “Calorie shifting” allows us to eat less of the stress foods by simply eating more of the healthy foods.  It’s a win-win concept that does not rely solely on willpower for success.

Finally, when you do eat those foods that lead to a vicious cycle of craving, meet the problem head-on with physical activity.  Get up and move.  Exercise provides more than just an outlet for extra calories—it is a healthy way to diffuse any kind of stress, even the holiday kind.

During the yuletide season, adopting these stress-busting strategies will help you ring in the New Year feeling much calmer and at a lower weight!


This article was written by Karan Summitt. Karan is a Community Health Educator and an Employee Health Coach at St. Bernards Medical Center. She holds a bachelor’s degree in family and consumer sciences from Harding University in Searcy and has extensive training and experience in weight loss and healthy lifestyle management, with emphasis on healthcare needs of seniors. She submits a weekly lifestyle “column to The Jonesboro Sun entitled “The Diet Gal” and also writes a “Successful Aging” column for the magazine NEA Seniors.