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Five foods to fight stress

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Feeling stressed on an almost daily basis is something most of us are used to. Work, bills, money, deadlines, traffic jams, family and partners – with so many different stressors coming at us from all angles, it's no wonder so many people feel overwhelmed, as though there’s an inescapable dark and suffocating cloud always lingering over the back of your mind.

If you frequently feel stressed out, one of the biggest temptations is to immediately reach for your favourite comfort foods, such as refined carbohydrates and sugar, and to consume them in large and detrimental proportions. But instead of devouring a tub of premium ice-cream, packet of Tim Tams, or bag of Maltesers you had stashed away in case of an ‘emergency’, try substituting in some of the natural stress-busting foods listed below, and observe for yourself if your stress levels abate. Odds are, once you begin to incorporate these vitamin and mineral-rich super foods into your diet, you'll experience a difference.

1. Blueberries

According to James Duigan, world-renowned personal trainer to supermodels such as Elle McPherson and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, in his book Clean and Lean: Flat Tummy Fast, when it comes to stress-fighting foods, blueberries “are at the top of [the] list because they’re a low GI (Glycaemic Index) food, which means they keep your blood-sugar (and energy) levels nice and steady”.

Identified as one of Mother Nature's healthiest foods, blueberries are loaded with antioxidants (molecules that stop free radicals damaging healthy cells), so they work to protect and repair your body from the deleterious effect of too much stress. They are also bursting with vitamin C, which has been shown to reduce the production of cortisol, a stress hormone that, if left unattended in the brain for prolonged periods of time, can permanently deteriorate cognitive health.

  • Type: Look for plump, uniform blueberries with taut skin and a pale white frosting.
  • Serving suggestion: One serve is approximately 2/3 cup and equates to only 30 calories. Delicious raw or cooked, eaten on their own or added to yoghurt, muesli, breads or salads, Duigan recommends eating one handful of blueberries a day if possible.
2. Organic yoghurt

Yoghurt most notably contains a high amount of calcium, which Mary Dallman, Professor of Physiology at the University of California, suggests can decrease muscle spasms and soothe tension in the body. Yoghurt is also great for neutralising too much acidity in the gut, which is often a by-product of too much stress. Researchers from the University of Toronto also demonstrated that when Lactobacillus Casei (a probiotic found in some yoghurts and supplements like Yakalt) was given to people with chronic fatigue syndrome on a daily basis for two months, their feelings of anxiety significantly decreased.

  • Type: Choose natural, organic, unsweetened yoghurts over low-fat varieties (as the latter tend to be packed with hidden sugars, sweeteners and preservatives which are hard to digest and can cause inflammation of the gut and stress to your body).
  • Serving suggestion: A 200-gram serving of all-natural organic yoghurt is roughly 136 calories.
3. Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate has long been understood to be a great mood elevator. It contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which stimulates the production of endorphins, a feel-good chemical released in the brain that makes you feel happier. PEA is also the same chemical your brain releases when you feel like you’re falling in love. In addition, dark chocolate contains high levels of magnesium, a natural muscle relaxant that helps soothe and calm fragile nerves. A 2009 study found strong evidence that consuming 40 grams of dark chocolate per day for two weeks significantly lowered cortisol levels in healthy volunteers who had rated themselves as highly stressed.

  • Type: Always buy raw organic dark chocolate with 60 per cent or more cacao, no added sugars, sweeteners or preservatives.
  • Serving suggestion: one square equals roughly 53 calories, so go easy – dark chocolate is still high in fat and sugar content, so portion control is crucial here (one or two squares once or twice a week is fine, but don't overdo it if you're looking to lose or maintain your weight).

4. Almonds, walnuts, & pistachios

Almonds, walnuts and pistachios are all highly nutritious stress-soothing snacks and great sources of magnesium, zinc, and vitamins B and E. Both E and B vitamins bolster your immune system, which counteracts the weakening affects of stress. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps kill free radicals associated with stress and studies have shown it also assists in the prevention of heart disease. B vitamins are important for the body's production of energy, and so any deficiencies will leave you feeling weak and fatigued. 

A 2008 study in the biobehavioural health department at Pennsylvania State University revealed that eating roughly a handful of pistachios a day lowered the blood pressure of participants. This was also shown to be true for walnuts, both for participants at rest and those under stress.

  • Type: Best if organic and eaten raw, as cooking alters some of the nuts’ nutritional benefits. Avoid commercially roasted varieties as these are sometimes cooked in hydrogenated oils, which are full of unhealthy trans fats, or salted.
  • Serving suggestion: 23 whole raw almonds or 49 dry pistachio nut kernels equates to approximately 163 calories per serve. A serve of English walnuts (one ounce or 14 halves) is roughly 185 calories. Always store nuts in the fridge for maximum freshness. 
5. Dark green vegetables

Spinach, broccoli, kale, romaine lettuce, Brussels sprouts, green peppers, green beans, peas, and zucchini – all of these dark green vegies contain B-complex vitamins, essential for the production of serotonin, a mood-enhancing neurotransmitter. High amounts of potassium are also typically present in these dark green vegetables, which studies have shown to be ideal for calming nerves. Duigan rates his faves as spinach and broccoli, as only 30 grams of spinach provides a huge 40 per cent of your daily magnesium requirement, and deficiencies in this mineral can trigger migraine headaches and fatigue. Broccoli is also a stress-soothing food as it has all the essential B vitamins plus the added benefits of folic acid, which scientific studies have shown can diminish feelings of stress and depression.

  • Type: Duigan says the rule here is "the darker the dark green rocket is better than pale green iceberg lettuce".
  • Serving suggestion: Limit to one-and-a-half cups (cooked) a day if you're trying to lose weight or maintain your weight and have had difficulty in the past. Remember to individualise portion sizes depending on your activity level and metabolic needs. 

Evidently, all of these foods listed above are not only extremely healthy, but also extremely delicious! Despite this knowledge, all of us, no matter how strong our willpower, struggle to resist turning to junk food to console ourselves when faced with stressful situations. But if you stick to munching on these highly nutritious, low fat, low sugar, low caffeine, vitamin and mineral-rich alternatives, your body and mind will thank you and that should be reward enough!

Published on: Saturday, February 25, 2012

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