Work & life balance is a combination that can push our stress levels to near breaking point. While many of us who suffer from stress can pinpoint the main causes, we often fail to manage it and put measures in place that reduce its burden. Stress can evolve into serious issues such as depression, social withdrawal and ill-health, which is why managing and preventing it is so important. Often our diets are overlooked when considering the cause of stress, and it could be a big factor.

Diet & Stress

Our diets impact our health in many ways without us even realising. Certain traits can collectively lead to issues such as tiredness & fatigue, which affect the way we function, ultimately causing stress. A prime example of this is caffeine intake. Many people over-consume caffeine through coffee & soft drinks among others, in order to cope with tiredness and dips in energy levels. This can be somewhat of a vicious cycle as the excess caffeine can result in poor sleep, and potentially the root cause of tiredness, not to mention the other potential side effects such as anxiety, restlessness, stomach pain and heart palpations.

In contrast, fatigue & tiredness could be a result of us not getting enough iron or vitamin B-12 through our diet. In these circumstances, altering what we eat to include rich-sources of these nutrients will help to manage the problem and have us feeling healthy, happy and a lot less stressed!

Those are just two scenarios and there are various other ways in which diet and stress affect one another. For example, stress and anxiety experienced in someone’s personal life can impact their appetite and lead to poor intake, weight loss and illness (think about how often illness follows a period of stress & not looking after ourselves properly). Equally, a diet that includes lots of processed and convenience food can lead to weight gain that can cause stress through unhappiness over body image and anxiety around the associated health risks. 

Are your stress levels & diet a problem?

Working in central London as a Dietitian, I see a number of clients who suffer from stress. While the main cause is often attributed to work, many fail to realise the connection between diet, health and stress.

Often they report similar issues that can be linked to diet & stress such as low energy levels, difficulty concentrating, poor sleeping patterns, irregular bowels and various other issues. On assessment of their diets, I regularly find significant aspects that can be improved such as fibre intake. The majority of the UK fail to eat enough fibre, and therefore foods like fruit and veg, wholegrains, seeds & nuts can help to increase these levels. Doing so will provide a long list of health benefits, such as helping to control blood sugar levels, reducing cholesterol, improving gut health, bowel movements & immunity, as well as losing weight.

Poor diet - stress

Many city workers struggle for time and therefore haven’t much option but to buy food on the go, which often leads to foods that are dangerously high in sugar and saturated fat. This doesn’t have to be the case however and with a some education and guidance, clients begin to understand which foods to look out for when shopping for a healthy lunch or dinner and which foods need to be eaten in moderation to avoid over-indulging. I use the phrase ‘over-indulge’, and this is important because indulging occasionally can be a good thing – our diets should still provide us with pleasure!

As a Dietitian, I advocate all foods (within reason) and there is no need to single out particular ones unless indicated by a medical conditional. When eaten in moderation, all foods can make a healthy contribution to what we eat. Having the occasional ‘treat’ will help ensure that our diets provide us with pleasure, as opposed to being a restrictive, repetitive routine that leads to unhappiness. The important thing is that the balance is right for you as an individual and the diet is one that can be maintained long-term to keep you both physically and mentally healthy!

Making positive changes

Managing your diet around your lifestyle and individual needs is a big step towards reducing stress and avoiding some of the negative consequences discussed. The combination of busy lifestyles and the availability of low-cost convenience foods are often to blame when we find ourselves suffering. However, it is never too late to make a positive change that will reap various benefits for your health and wellbeing.

Each of us are different, and in order to make these changes it may be that support is needed with nutrition education, meal planning, cooking ideas or simply the motivation to implement & maintain a plan.

Author: Robbie Green