Eating Well Helps Teens Manage Stress
This article was written by Nora Laberee, a former CPTC research assistant.
Stress Management Includes Eating Well
Eating well builds healthy, resilient bodies better able to live life to the fullest. Nutrition plays a huge role in the ability to manage daily stresses as well as in maintaining health and well-being for the future.
Nutrition is tightly tied to the cycle of stress. Eating healthy leads to stronger bodies, clearer minds, and more stable moods. When stressed, our hormones can drive us toward unhealthy eating habits. These unhealthy nutritional choices may offer temporary comfort, but hurt our ability to manage challenges in the longer term. As tweens and teens, we must include good nutrition as part of our overall approach to managing stress.
There are many strategies to help improve nutrition. The science on dietary recommendations and nutrition continues evolving. Read on for some targeted tips and explore trustworthy resources on your own.
Why Nutrition Supports Healthy Stress Management
The expression, “You are what you eat!” says it all. Food offers both the fuel and the building blocks for a strong body. It’s possible to survive on low-quality foods, but it is much easier on the body when it is fueled with the nutrition it deserves to function. Nutrition also influences the ability to exercise efficiently — and exercise is another key strategy to managing stress.
The brain also needs a steady supply of energy. Glucose is typically the source of energy for the brain. It’s important to eat foods that smoothly and continuously deliver glucose to the brain, rather than those that create surges and crashes of energy. Glucose is found in both simple and complex sugars — also known as carbohydrates. Simple sugars taste sweet and are found in candy, soft drinks, and some junk foods. They are quickly absorbed and give a burst of energy followed by a crash. Complex carbohydrates don’t taste as sweet and deliver a slower, more steady supply of glucose to the brain. Complex carbohydrates are found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
How Stress Undermines Good Nutrition
To understand how stress undermines good nutrition it is helpful to think about how the body reacts in both an active emergency and in long-lasting stressful situations.
Humans are designed for survival. In the past, that largely meant escaping predators. In a crisis where survival was at stake, a surge of adrenaline launched the body’s fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline quickly shifted the blood from the gut to muscles to help the body run away from the predator. That explains that sinking feeling you may experience in your belly when frightened. Escape is the priority. Digestion becomes a low priority in a crisis. The body’s resources (blood and energy) are directed elsewhere. This is exactly as it should be for escaping real crises.
Most modern-day stresses aren’t real threats and rarely last more than a few minutes. But when stress levels remain high — even if they are based on thoughts and feelings rather than a real predator — attempting to eat can bring on physical discomfort. Our digestive systems just aren’t ready for food when we are on survival mode.
The Link Between Hormones, Stress and Food
There’s another hormone triggered by the stress response systems that also disrupts nutrition. Cortisol is a hormone that turns on in “recovery-mode” and increases appetite and food cravings to replenish energy used when in “survival-mode.” If stress remains at a fairly high level, cortisol continues to circulate in the body as if it is preparing for the next crisis. Cortisol increases anxiety, nervousness and alertness precisely to keep the body ready. The body remains in “on-mode,” so it is prepared for the threat before it strikes. It revs up appetite in a effort to store additional energy.
Stress can also affect food preferences. Emotional distress like sadness or anger can increase cravings for food high in fat, sugar, or both. The reason? Fatty and sugary foods may have short-term benefits such as triggering feel-good emotions. But they also lead to long-term problems like storing fat around the midsection and heart disease.
Intentional Eating: Outsmart Hormones
The body is hard to outsmart. It was built to manage crises that threaten survival. It’s ok to not have an appetite in the worst of times. It’s fine to have short-term cravings to replenish the body or offer needed comfort. The problem is when these short-term solutions become long-term patterns, either out of habit or because stress doesn’t go away. That’s why it’s important to have a broad range of strategies to help manage stress and to control and counteract hormonal responses that lead to unhealthy eating.
Eating can be more than just something to do to survive. It can give pleasure and offer moments to connect with others. In this increasingly rushed world, too often it becomes something to just fit in. Rushing while eating or grabbing food on-the-go often leads to eating a larger amount of food and less nutritious meals. In this fast-paced world eating often becomes one thing done while multitasking many other things — like homework, texting, or watching TV. It’s important to focus on what you’re eating and to pay attention to your body’s signals that it’s satisfied.
As tweens and teens, we want to be healthy. We also want to have fun and to eat food that tastes good. Here are some quick tips to build strong, healthy bodies.
Healthy Eating Tips
- Enjoy eating. The pleasure of eating should be your focus. Rather than just shoveling things in your mouth, taste the food.
- Eat with family and friends. People eat healthier when meals are shared with others and mixed with real conversations.
- Take your time. Make eating a special part of the day. Try to have meals last at least 20 minutes. That allows your body to learn how much it really needs.
- Try to eat something healthy in the morning. You’ll be better able to focus after a well-balanced breakfast.
- Eat a combination of high protein foods (ex: an egg, beans or nuts) and complex carbohydrates (ex: fruit, vegetables). This helps balance energy levels.
- On stressful or busy days, try to eat smaller amounts more frequently.
- Put only what you want to eat on the plate. Portion size matters. Take seconds only if you’re still hungry.
- Eat healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables. It’s ok to have salty or sweet snacks sometimes, just limit the portion size and frequency.
- Eat colorful foods. A good way of being sure to get enough vitamins and minerals is to eat fruits and vegetables of different colors.
- Stay well-hydrated. Water is the best choice for hydration. Feel free to flavor water with fresh juices or other healthy additives like cucumber, mint or lime.
- Try to avoid soft drinks. Think of them as sugar-water, which offers little-to-no nutritional value.
Why You Eat
Take a moment and ask yourself, “Why do I eat?” Eating for reasons other than hunger can lead to unhealthy choices. Stress, emotions, and boredom are some common reasons for turning to food. But food shouldn’t be used as a coping mechanism. Eating is meant to fill nutritional needs.
Listen to your body when eating. What makes you feel good? What gives you energy? Mindful and healthful eating is important but food itself should not be a source of stress. Food should be enjoyed and should make your body feel good. If you find yourself overthinking your eating habits or constantly worrying about how and what you eat, reach out to a parent, guardian, or health care professional about how to make food and eating less stressful.