How to Stress-Proof Your Diet

By Stacey Feintuch
Reviewed by Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

Taking care of a family member undergoing chemotherapy can be draining. You are so stressed out that you eat whatever you have on hand—cookies, candy, soda—even though you know it’s bad for you. You notice that your clothes are a bit more snug but you have no time to hit the gym, let alone walk around the block.

Fact is, caregiving and weight gain often go hand in hand. According to a study by Evercare, an organization that provides caregiving support services, 6 in 10 caregivers say their eating habits are worse than before they became caregivers. Some caregivers lack the time and energy to cook, and instead grab processed, packaged or fast foods. Others binge or eat unhealthy foods to cope with stress. That habit is doubly bad if diabetes runs in your family, since emotional eating can easily lead to weight gain, and that can activate your genetic tendency to develop the disease.

Don’t let caregiving compromise your own well-being. You can learn to deal with stress—without turning to food. Here’s how:

Think moderation, not elimination. If you can’t leave comfort foods behind, portion them out. Separate a box of cookies into smaller containers or bags so you’ll only eat a serving’s worth.

Plan your meals. To avoid turning to unhealthy fare, stock good-for-you food that can help you handle your stress. Snacking on nuts, such as pistachios and almonds, or eating omega-3-rich fish, such as salmon or tuna, can help keep stress in check. That’s because these foods reduce levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Eat complex carbohydrates, such as legumes and whole-grain breads, cereals and pasta. They’ll promote the production of serotonin, one of the body’s chemicals responsible for regulating mood. Also add to your diet dried apricots and spinach, which boast nutrients, such as potassium and magnesium, that help beat stress.

Create a substitution. Don’t turn to junk food to drown your sorrows. Call a friend, listen to music or read a book. You can even do laundry or take a nap to distract yourself from eating. Research has shown that simply closing your eyes and imagining a tropical vacation can help kill a craving.

Get moving. Yes, you’ve probably heard this before, but it really is true: Exercise boosts the production of endorphins, which trigger positive feelings. And studies show that people who exercise regularly may be less affected by their stress. Try walking, yoga, swimming or karate.

Watch your snacks. Reach for a snack that includes low-fat protein, like red and green bell pepper strips with hummus, grapes with low-fat string cheese or a celery stalk smeared with peanut butter. These foods will keep you satisfied longer, unlike packaged snack foods and sweets, such as candy bars or chips, which will only cure hunger pangs briefly. Plus, the healthy bites are digested slower than carbs, so you’ll be less likely to feel ravenous soon after eating. If you’re craving sweets, indulge in a small piece of dark chocolate; studies have shown it may help protect your cardiovascular system.

Think before you eat. Create a food diary and read it! It’s the best way to learn from the entries that document what, how much and when you eat. Jot down how you’re feeling, too: bored, angry, fed up, just need chocolate, stomach’s growling, etc. You’ll become more conscious of your eating patterns and the food choices you make when you’re stressed. For example, if ice cream is your go-to indulgence when you’re tired, try subbing in nonfat frozen yogurt. If you haven’t tried it in a while, you might be surprised at how much you like the new varieties that have just 100 calories per ½ cup.

Still can’t tackle emotional eating? Visit a counselor or therapist to help you deal with your feelings. If time permits, visit a nutritionist, who can help you develop a plan to eat healthfully.

Published March 2014

  For Caregivers

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What Not to Say to Someone Having Chemo
Make Long-Distance Caregiving Work
Delight a Loved One Going Through Chemo
Get Your Loved One to Eat During Chemo
Keep Intimacy Strong

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