Stress eating is a common way many people deal with worry, anxiety and high-pressure situations. It’s an unhealthy habit that can lead to weight gain, unwanted blood sugar fluctuations, and other health risks associated with this behavior. Sure, temporarily indulging in your favorite foods, especially during the holidays, may feel soothing in the moment, but the demands of extra digestion and stress will do more harm than good.
You’ve probably heard about the “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” responses. These are two sides of your autonomic nervous system. When you are stressed or face anything you may perceive as a threat, your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) kicks in. When things are status quo, especially if you have a mindfulness practice such as yoga or meditation, your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) takes over.
From the names alone, you can tell that “rest and digest” is better for digestion. When your body is in “fight or flight” mode, however, it not only inhibits the function of digestive muscles, but also releases less digestive juices. Chronic stress decreases vagal tone, which plays a role in the absorption and metabolism of nutrients. Stress also impacts your gut-brain axis and can, ultimately, lead to inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, and other short- and long-term GI dysfunction.
I know it’s really hard to resist eating your emotions, but it can be helpful to strategize how you eat during these times. Rather than grab an office donut (or two), try these tasty tricks to maximize the absorption of the nutrients you are consuming, so that you have proper fuel to get you through those stressful scenarios.
1. Toss a salad with vinaigrette.
Research continues to show that healthy plant oils can improve your absorption of nutrients. Most recently, a small study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that soybean oil may help your body absorb more carotenoids, vitamin A, and vitamin K. However, soy products are often GMO, so I recommend olive oil, which is known for its heart-healthy properties and has been shown to aid in absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, too. Try this easy vinaigrette, adding seasonings to suit your taste.
A Basic Vinaigrette
3 tablespoons cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic, apple, coconut, or rice vinegar
1 pinch Himalayan salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1-2 tablespoons fresh chopped herbs (i.e., dill, basil, parsley, and/or thyme) or 1 teaspoon dried herbs
1 teaspoon chopped shallot
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/2-1 teaspoon raw honey (or other natural sweetener)
Whisk ingredients together or shake in a mason jar. Keep refrigerated.
2. Scoop up guac with carrots instead of chips.
Oil isn’t the only fat that helps you absorb more beta carotene. Eating raw carrots with avocado also works, Ohio State University researchers reported in a study supported by the Hass Avocado Board. Beta-carotene absorption increased more than six fold when a small group of men and women ate guacamole with baby carrots. Added bonus: It’s such an easy snack that naturally supports healthy vision, reproduction, and immunity.
3. Chew almonds slowly and thoroughly.
Purdue University researchers asked 13 adults to eat two ounces of almonds for this study. The catch: They chewed the almonds 10, 25, or 40 times. When participants gnawed on the nuts 40 times, their bodies absorbed more healthy fats and vitamin E than when they chewed the nuts 10 or 25 times. This vitamin is an antioxidant that helps fight free radicals, so try to chew longer when you have almonds. This also applies to any food you eat.
4. Embrace your bad breath.
Zinc is an essential mineral that’s involved in everything from wound healing and protein synthesis to a healthy immune system and proper sense of taste. But the zinc in plant foods, such as whole grains, has a low bioavailability. The solution: Cook your quinoa, amaranth, millet, and other grains with garlic or onions. According to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, doing so can boost the bioavailability of zinc by 10 to 160 percent. Plus alliums, like garlic, onion, and shallots, are naturally antibacterial and anti-viral.
5. Feed your gut.
Studies continue to find new links between the gut health and overall health. We know that fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, and tempeh, act as natural probiotics and improve your gut flora. And not only does a healthy gut naturally absorb more nutrients from your diet, it also leads to better digestion and may even help reduce anxiety.
Related: 4 Ways to Boost Your Mood Naturally