Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Eat right to combat stress

"My diet is horrendous. I drink too much coffee. I skip lunch four out of five days at work and I eat everything in sight when I get home. I know I should eat better, but I can't seem to get it together."

Sound familiar? It's just one version of the frustrations commonly heard from people with hectic lives.

The demands of juggling a career, family and activities after work or school puts us in a constant time crunch. As a result, Canadians are finding it more difficult than ever to maintain a nutritious diet, which is profoundly affecting our health.

Stress Eroding Our Well-Being

It's not surprising that more than 35 per cent of Canadians say they are constantly under some form of stress. Many of us often internalize stress and, over a period of months and years, this wear and tear may cause both mental and physical breakdown.

In small doses, stress can energize and motivate us. Too much stress, however, can impair our health status.

About 50 to 80 per cent of today's health disorders -- headaches, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and even cardiovascular disease -- are believed to be stress-related.

Unfortunately, our body cannot identify the difference between physical and mental stresses. Whether we are faced with an angry bear or have a deadline to meet, our body responds to the stressful situation in the same way.

Poor Diet Can Trigger Stress

Our demand for nutrients increases during periods of stress. Research shows that there is a faster turnover of protein, fat and carbohydrates in order to produce energy to keep up with the demands we place on ourselves. Vitamins B and C are rapidly depleted in the course of this carbohydrate and protein metabolism.

Therefore, if we are skipping meals or not eating a balanced diet, the level of stress increases as the demand for nutrients is increases and is not met.

Our bodies will not have the nutrients required to manage stress properly and, as a result, our health becomes compromised. Even normal stress begins to exact a toll.

How We Cope With Stress

When the pressure is on, the solution for many of us is to not take the time to eat. Then, when the stressful moment has passed or we finally have the time to eat, we typically reach for a treat. By then, we're low in blood sugar, extremely hungry and need to eat NOW. This energy slump, typically at 3 or 4 p.m., sets us up for poor food choices.

The concentrated shot of sugar found in soft drinks or jelly beans does makes us feel better and provides a quick boost of energy, but it's shortlived. We wind up feeling more tired and irritable than we did before we went for the sugar fix.

It's a vicious circle: stress affects our mood; our mood affects our food choices; and our food choices affect our mood, generally for the worse.

Many of us have been also socialized to rely on food for comfort or for a reward. This nervous noshing can lead us into a cycle of guilt and add more stress by increasing concerns about eating poorly or weight gain. Sadly, we've missed an opportunity to feed our body what it really needs: foods rich in vitamins, minerals, protein and carbohydrates.


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