From Biosis 2, January 2005 (Updated)
Stress and Your Body’s Nutritional Needs
No doubt, you know the home remedy starve a fever, feed a cold. But how do you feed a cold? Well, you drink lots of fluids, of couse. You eat wholesome, nourishing foods such as the standard chicken soup. These help strengthen our bodies, supporting them in healing themselves.
But what about when we’re stressed? Many of us, if we’re honest, will admit that we often eat poorly when under pressure. We become frantic, overwhelmed. We think we have no time for anything, let alone a healthy meal. Running from this obligation to that, we grab what we can. A lot of us will grab energy-dense, nutrient-poor convenience food: a fast food burger; a hot dog from the corner cart; chips, candy and soda from the office vending machines. Though this does take care of our immediate hunger, physiologically, it provides little.
Or we might reach for “comfort foods,” especially at the end of a long, hard day. We grab a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, a handful or two or more of cookies, a chocolate bar, and say we are “nurturing” ourselves. And true to their name, comfort foods do help us feel better – at least in the short term. Yet comes a new day, we’re stressed all over again and find they’ve not really helped at all.
The body reacts to stress as it does to physical injury. According to University of Georgia Professor Emerita Dr. Carolyn Berdanier, when stressed, our bodies have a tendency towards “creating fat stores and breaking down muscle.” This is because they want more energy (stored in the fat cells), as well as the amino acids (taken from present muscle) needed to help fight infection. So if we eat more protein and fat, more energy and amino acids will be already in the blood, ready for use.
Just as with a cold, then, we can use food as one way of helping our bodies heal.
When we eat meat, cheese, eggs or other animal products, we generally get a good dose of both protein and fat, including a good amount of saturated fat. While many people are concerned about the amount of saturated fat they eat, it’s important to remember that our bodies need all kinds of naturally occurring fats in order to thrive. Thus, you can balance animal-based foods with vegetable proteins such as beans, tofu and other soy products, nuts and sea vegetables. In general, plant-based foods tend to be either low in total fat or contain good unsaturated fats such as those found in olive oil and avocados, and the essential omega 3 oils commonly found in flaxseed, English walnuts and a variety of vegetables. (Omega 3s are also found in large amounts in fish.)
The only fats to totally avoid are the artificial trans fats still commonly found in industrial food. These can be thought of as “good fats gone bad.” They are made via hydrogenatization: infusing an unsaturated oil with hydrogen to solidify the oil and make it less perishable. When hydrogenization isn’t complete, the oil’s fatty acids are damaged. These damaged fats provide no known benefit to human health, and they may contribute to chronic heart disease and increase the risk of cancer, diabetes, infertility and liver dysfunction, as well as contribute to obesity.
While many food manufacturers have begun to shift away from using trans fats now that they must be listed on Nutrition Facts labels, you should still check for the phrase “partially hydrogenized” on the ingredients list of any processed foods you choose to buy. This is because the law allows a food to contain .5 grams or less of trans fat per serving and still be considered “trans fat free.” Yet, as per the National Academy of Sciences, there is no safe level of trans fat consumption.
As you increase your intake of protein and fat, you will likely find yourself with less of an appetite for refined grains, starches and sugars – foods that can often exacerbate stress and other negative mental states. Such foods should be minimized in the diet, with the bulk of carbohydrate calories coming, instead, from non-starchy vegetables, along with some low-glycemic fruits.
In the short term, by following these guidelines, you can help your body deal more effectively with stress. In turn, your mental outlook will likely improve, too. But an even better solution is to adopt these changes for the long-term. Doing so, you’ll likely find you feel less stressed as a rule. For just as a well-fed body is less prone to catching colds in the first place, your body and mind will be better prepared to handle what comes your way.