How To Look After Your Health When Stressed And Super Busy: FOOD
PART 2: FOOD
Following on from my previous blog where I explained exactly how stress affects the body internally and how our overall health is a sum of various elements, and when one or more of these are out of sync our health can suffer and our stress levels can increase. My first blog focused on the importance of relaxation and sleep, in this blog I aim to simplify how to still eat healthily when you are supper busy. As with all my blogs in this series ‘How To Look After Yourself When Stressed And Super Busy’ feel free to scroll to the end to see my go-to tables that summarise each health element for dealing with work related stress. If it’s more manageable, begin by picking one thing from each health table to focus on. Then come back to the start and read about each area of your health in more detail.
Consult with your doctor or health advisor before embarking on any new exercise, food and supplement regime.
To recap, I feel the main six elements that make up our overall wellbeing are:-
1st: RELAXATION and SLEEP
2nd: FOOD is a priority, healthy food is essential as it nourishes our bodies and souls as well as protecting us from many illnesses. Make it your mission to create 4 meals that you can just throw together and taste great. This blog aims to give you the tools to do just that.
3rd: MIND (or Mental Health)
4th: GUT HEALTH, (links 2 and 3), through our guts are we absorb the nutrients from the food we eat, our digestive system and our brains are interconnected.
5th: Essential MOVEMENT, in the form of leisure or exercise
6th: SKIN HEALTH
Healing Food Choices When Stressed
It is even more important to focus on our diets during times of stress or mental anguish. It may seem like there is contradictory advice on what we should eat for optimal health however I have gathered some failsafe non-conflicting guidelines to share with you. I have gleaned these over the last 12 years of my health and fitness journey. The last 7 years of which I have been a practicing Personal Training and Bikini Fitness Athlete.
Over the years I have learnt that each person has his or her own unique health and life story. Although a blog cannot be a personal approach it will help you become more conscious about the best food choices to help support your general health when stressed. Home cooking food in its most natural form is the best place to begin. Cooking needn’t be time consuming; in fact I rarely cook anything that takes longer than 12 minutes.
I don’t wish to make you feel guilty but next time you tell yourself you don’t have time, just take a moment to think about how much time you spend watching TV, or on social media…. maybe replace 30 minutes of TV with getting experimental with quick recipes in the kitchen. There is always time for your health. Healthy food should be easy, delicious and comforting, I certainly don’t regularly eat food I don’t enjoy!
Please see my social media for food assembly inspiration. The benefits of being organised with your food, helps you to be organised and energised in other aspects of your life, as well as improved blood sugar balance and weight control.
Everything in moderation, never cut out a complete food group... sugar is not a food group. It’s practically a drug that ages us makes us fat (especially around our organs and stomach), it causes anxiety, and is highly addictive and stressful for our bodies to deal with. Sugar comes under approx 56 names. Read “I Quit Sugar: SIMPLICIOUS” by Sarah Wilson 2015, ‘First, We Make the beast Beautiful: A new story about Anxiety” by Sarah Wilson 2018, “Sweet Poison: why sugar makes us fat” by David Gillespie 2013. “Eat.Nouish.Glow” by Amelia Freer 2015.
Eat more vegetables; Aim for 7 portions of fresh veg a day! and 1 portion of low GL Fresh fruit. Limit high GL fruit to twice a week.
Eat carbs in moderation, but healthy, unrefined ones like oats, sweet potato, brown rice, legumes and have them mainly in the first half of the day.
Eat fat, it actually helps you lose body fat, it's essential for healthy skin, nails and hair. Most nutrients from food are only fat-soluble, i.e. you won't absorb them if no fat is present in your meal.Choose: flax seed oil, olive oil, coconut oil, hemp seed oil, and nut butters. The key is to not to cook with fat, add it cold afterwards. Most oils turn to dangerous compounds once cooked with, except for coconut oil. Approx 35g a day of fat should be enough for most people. Avoid Trans fats, they are found in confectionary and margarines.
Eat protein in every meal; it’s the building block for cell renewal and muscle recovery. It’s the macronutrient that keeps us feeling fullest. Choose lean meats, eggs, legumes and peas.
Don't eat ‘snacks’, or processed foods instead eat 4, or even 5 meals a day, as in 3 main meals and 1-2 small meals. It's better to think small meal instead of snack. Processed foods sold as snacks (generally food products containing more than 5 ingredients) often increase your cravings and you end up eating more calories in your 'snack' than in a wholesome meal.
Its not just about what you eat but when, we should all have 12 hours between our last evening feed and the next mornings breakfast. As a rule of thumb 3-5 hours between meals to allow the body time to use the food for energy and then tap into some stored body fat for energy after this. The more carbs and fats a meal contains, the longer you need for the body to utilise this until the next meal. If your meal is mainly protein and veg with a small portion of carbs and fat then you will need to eat your next meal sooner, as in 3 hours.
You may have read about intermittent fasting, read up on the 5:2 Fast diet, the science behind this is rather fascinating. I’m not suggesting Intermittent fasting is suitable for all however if you have been suffering from chronic stress, or a medical condition that affects the adrenal glands such as PCOCS, of FM then it may be worth considering incorporating the 5:2 method one day a month or even one day a week. It slows the body down allowing for cellular healing to occur, and gives the adrenal glands a break. We all naturally fast over night for this very reason, to allow the body to do essential maintenance and healing.
Drink more water, don’t drink your calories!
Strategies when super busy; always be prepared. At weekends batch cook Chicken (or other forms of protein), stews, soups ready for the following week or to store in the freezer. Keep healthy foods you could eat as a small ‘meal’ readily available everywhere. These include tinned fish, carrots and humus, celery and nut butter, smoked salmon, plain, Greek yogurt with fresh berries and seeds, olives, cooked sweet potatoes and boiled eggs (lovely on the sweet potatoes instead of bread actually). Arm yourself with 4 meal recipes you can throw together in 15 minutes. See my meals below for Inspiration, most of my meals are made in only 12 minutes!
Macronutrients (or macros as they have been ‘fashionably’ coined); A healthy, balanced diet involves three macronutrients: protein, fat and carbohydrates. Out of these three, carbohydrates convert quickest within the body into a form of sugar we need for rapidly accessible energy, called glycogen. However if we consume surplus to the bodies’ energy needs, the excess is converted into body fat, stored energy. Proteins and fats have a low GI and GL. Vegetables and whole fruits (not juice) help to protect the Hippocampus from losing volume and reduce signs of aging by combating oxidation. Instead vegetables and whole fruits are also rich in cofactors, needed to make the two primary stress relievers: Serotonin and Gamma Amino butyric Acids (GABA). Healthy levels of these help you feel more peaceful, optimistic and motivated to engage in healthy behaviours like exercise and connection with loved ones, rather than binging on refined carbohydrates (carbs) and Television.
In case you are interested in further research, foods containing Trytophan, Glutamine, B Vitamins, Magnesium, Vitamin C, Zinc, Choline, Calcium (found in most vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, lean meats, milk, eggs and pulses) and Theanine (found exclusively in tea, and nuts), all promote health, calmness and happiness.
Why you might want to give up SUGAR
Food needs to be the first priority in self-medication. We all know we can crave sugary foods and drinks like ice-cream and chocolate when we are feeling upset or low, but sugar can be a disaster for your brain, thyroid (metabolism), and encourages belly fat. In fact, blood sugar spikes don’t just cause a rollercoaster of high and low moods, sugar also shrinks the Hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that helps us remain resilient in the face of stress and helps regulate mood by controlling your nervous systems.
When stressed we release higher levels of the stress hormone Cortisol, and the blood sugar, lowering hormone Insulin. These in turn can lower the feel-good hormones like serotonin and encourage the food we consume to be dumped as body fat rather than being used for energy. The solution, reduce or cut out foods with a high Glycaemic Load (GL Sugar index). A food with a high Glycemic Index (GI) 70 and above, raises blood sugar quicker than a food with a medium to low GI, foods below 55. But the GI does not take into account the amount of carbohydrate in a whole food. The Glycemic Load reading therefore is a better indicator of how a whole food will affect blood sugar.
When in doubt fill half your plate with vegetables 3, one quarter with lean Protein 1(fish, eggs, chicken, turkey, lean beef, venison, tofu). Leave a gap on the plate so that less than a quarter is wholegrain (brown) carbohydrates 2. Try to never completely finish a meal, this is a mindset drummed into us as children but it has been detrimental to our waistlines in adult life.
If you are vegan then you will need to combine plant foods containing incomplete proteins such as legumes, seeds, peas, nuts, grains and avocados to create complete proteins that are a full amino acid spectrum, and you could also supplement with a few protein shakes a week too.
Example Vegan Protein Pairings:-
Soups or stews with lentils (legumes) and buckwheat (grains)
Salads with butter beans (beans) and sunflower seeds (nuts or seeds)
Peanut butter (pea/nut) on granary bread (grain/seed)
Kidney beans (bean) and brown rice (grain)
yogurt with nuts like almonds or seeds like sesame
tofu or tempeh (soya protein) with freekeh (ancient grain) or Quinoa (seed)
Porridge made with oats or millet (grain), with pecans (nuts)
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein there are nine types in total; in particular the three branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) that are Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine are important for their role in building and maintaining lean tissue (muscle). They can be found in dietary protein powders and can be supplemented in tablet form also. See picture below for example protein powders and BCAA tablets to look into.
How To Deal With Cravings
Drink two large glasses of water, sparkling may be more satisfying.
Deep breathing, take a moment to catch yourself and think
Distract yourself with a complete task that takes your mind elsewhere
Have a piece of whole, fresh, Veg such as (cooked) sweet potato, raw carrot, celery, peppers or low GL Fruit such as berries, Plums, and apple
Have a tablespoon (tbsp) of nut butter, perhaps spread upon the veg or fruit above
Have boiled eggs, cooked Chicken, Turkey, Salmon or Prawns ready to eat
Have a Protein shake
If desperate for sugar, as you are only just starting to cut down, 3 squares of high quality, lower sugar, dark, chocolate such as Lint 85% can help curb sugar cravings. Or see my blog next week (spoiler: healthy treat recipes). I also post the food I eat daily together with recipes for further food assembly inspiration please see my social media; Instagram “Fitness Fashioned Blog" (Lucinda_Ella_PT) and Facebook Fitness Fashioned: Luella Bell PT
If you have been suffering from stress for a long time, alongside eating healthily as outlined, it my be worth considering taking a good all round multi vitamin/mineral supplement, and possibly even an Adrenal Gland support that contains B Vitamins (B6, B9, B12, B1), as these are greatly depleted when stressed. Vitamin B food sources are: dark, green leafy Vegetables, Carrots, Peas, Nuts, Seeds, Legumes, peas, Salmon, Prawns, Mackerel, Turkey, Beef, Pork, Chicken, Eggs, Bananas, Lemons, Oats, and Brewer’s Yeast Flakes. If stress is leaving you fatigued try taking Vitamin D3 for energy if sunshine is scarce.
Stress hinders our immune system and can leave us run down with constant colds. Zinc, Magnesium, Vitamin C and Garlic are all known for their role in reducing the duration of a cold due to antimicrobial and antiviral properties. You can consume garlic raw (perhaps pushed inside a ripe pear) but there are less smelly, more palatable alternatives such as Dulwhich Health’s garlic capsule ‘Allitech’ (see also Dulwhich Health ‘Oxytech’, Vitamin C with Insoluble Magnesium for gut support and clear skin), Viridian Nutrition have a ‘Horseradish and Garlic Complex’ that also contains Vitamin C and Zinc.
Magnesium is probably the most overlooked, essential nutrient and we need both Soluble and insoluble Magnesium in our diets. It’s the key mineral in the processes that convert food into energy, thus essential to combat fatigue. It helps with pre menstrual syndrome (PMS), hormonal imbalances, insomnia, bone health, muscle cramps and spasms, headaches, anxiety and irritability. Food sources are: Broccoli, Squash, Spinach, Swiss Chard, Beet greens, Cashews, Almonds, Sesame Seeds, Black Beans, Salmon and Halibut. Magnesium is difficult for the body to absorb but the best internally ingested form is Magnesium Glycinate tablets, or try the externally applied body sprays.
If you are highly stressed and training hard at the gym your muscle recovery and sleep may be affected by stress so a relaxing, hot bath with Epsom salts and magnesium flakes before bed will help your muscles relax. Many athletes favour ZMA’s (Combined Zinc and Magnesium) supplements before bed as they help to increase rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep) and muscle recovery.
My previous blog explained how sleep and relaxation are essential to heal the mind and body especially when you are stressed. If you have been following the advice from my previous blog for a week now and are still struggling to sleep then you may be lacking in Serotonin that converts to Melatonin. Melatonin is the body’s natural sleep hormone however it can be easy to overdose, whilst brands like Solgar do create Melatonin supplements it may be safer and more effective to instead encourage Serotonin production, then the body can convert what it requires to Melatonin. Serotonin is a chemical within our bodies known as the ‘happy hormone’, or neurotransmitter to be specific.
It is primarily found in the gastrointestinal tract (the gut), more on this in my blog on Gut health, it regulates mood, and is believed to play an important role in bowel function, blood clotting, bone density, insomnia, obesity, and sexual function. In short stress affects our happiness and can make us feel very down, depression has been linked to low levels of serotonin. There is a supplement called 5-HTP, which increases the production and synthesis (absorption to specific cells) of serotonin. L-trytophan helps to promote sleep, it is the least common of the 9 essential amino acids (mentioned earlier), and amino acids are shown by the L- infront of their name. Our body’s convert trytophan to 5-HTP which then converts to serotonin, then melatonin after this. Yet another reason to include a variety of lean protein sources into every meal. L- trytophan supplements are available as are melatonin but as with all essential nutrients its best to get these from food sources first, and then add supplementation to this if required.
It's likely when we have been suffering from prolonged stress that supplementation may be required alongside a healthy diet to bring us back to optimum health. A natural health Practitioner/ Doctor, and Dietician will be able to advise further on this
Fast, Healthy, Recipe Ideas
Lentil Dhal (Influenced by Jamie Oliver’s ‘basic tarka dhal’): serves at least 4
This is a wonderful, warming recipe that’s bursting with flavour and perfectly suited to batch cook as a base for adding different toppings throughout the week, or freezing ready for quick lunches and suppers. Its also quite the crowd pleaser and always goes down a storm when I whip it up for dinner parties.
Absolutely Essential Ingredients
400g red lentils
2 tsps turmeric
Non-stick pan OR 1 tbsp Coconut oil with a little water
2 tsps cumin seeds
1 small onion, finely chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, finely sliced OR tsp dried garlic flakes
1-2 fresh green chillies, finely sliced (remove seeds if you want to keep the heat down) OR pinch of chilli flakes
1 tin tomato Passata, e.g Pizza Express (or another brand)
1 stick Celery finely chopped
Butternut Squash,diced, your own preference on amount
Spring onions or other onions
Cherry Tomatoes, halved
Vegetable Bullion Stock 1-3 tsps to taste
1 tin chickpeas in water (drained)
Optional (recommended) Extras
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp ground coriander
A thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, finely grated OR half tsp ground Ginger
Apple Cider Vinegar
In a pan (non-stick preferably or use a little coconut oil), stir all the spices, garlic and ginger. Put the vegetables (except tomatoes) in this pan, adding a little water to prevent sticking.
Place the red split lentils in another pan and cover with enough cold water to come to around two inches above their surface. Bring to the boil (skim off any scum that rises to the top), add the stock, chickpeas and reduce to a simmer. Add the vegetable, spice mix, cover and leave to cook gently.
When the lentils absorb most of the water add in the pasatta and cherry tomatoes and a splash of apple cider vinegar. The lentils should have the consistency of porridge by approx 20 minutes – thicker than soup and looser than houmous. Add more water as necessary (you will be surprised how thick they can get over just a couple of extra minutes cooking).
Spoon out a portion and mix in your choice of steamed green, vegetables and protein. I have a video of me cooking lentils on my instagram “labell_fitness fashioned”.
Lentil Dhal meal ideas from left:
Baked salmon (12 mins cooking time) with Steamed British Asparagus
Sliced Chicken, Grilled Halloumi Sheep’s cheese, with courgettes and green beans
Spinach, baked half avocado, home made turkey mince burger, topped with an egg
Kale (peel the dark leaves off Cavolo nero, throw the bitter stalks), falafel (home made or shop bought) and prawns
Make sure you catch next week’s blog for the recipe for these chocolate muffins below. They make for a healthier treat that contains lots of fibre, prebiotics, and are gluten and refined sugar free, all of which is great for gut health. I would love to see your variations of the Lentil Dhal, feel free to tag me in on your home food assembly on Instagram.
Lucinda Abell is a Level 3 Personal Trainer, Group Exercise Instructor, UK Bikini Fitness Finalist and Sports Science Lecturer who is based in Cheshire.
Lucinda also works as a Freelance Designer and studied her Fashion Design Technology degree at the London College of Fashion, later going to specialise in Printed Textiles in her Masters degree at the Royal College of Art. You can discover more about Lucinda HERE