Stress—no one is immune to its effects, although how we deal with it can make all the difference in the world.
According to new research from the University of California, Berkeley , a little stress may not be so bad for us after all. Acute (short-term) stress may actually boost our cognitive function and performance, but chronic (repeated or prolonged) stress may be harmful, even dangerous.
There are many strategies available today for managing stress and one powerful tool you can use to properly deal with it is to watch what you eat. Nutritional stress, although rarely spoken of, is real and is caused by eating foods that have unhealthy properties. According to Brendan Brazier (a Vancouver-based professional Ironman triathlete and author of “The Thrive Diet”), “Nutritional stress accounts for about 40 percent of the average North American’s total stress load.”
Vegetarian/Vegan diets have now been shown to improve moods and lower stress. Research published by Nutrition Journal  proves that people who regularly eat meat or chicken daily reported better moods and less stress after only two weeks on a strict vegetarian diet. Another study  shows significantly less anxiety and depression was reported by a “vegetarian” group compared to a “non-vegetarian” group.
This doesn’t need to be an “all or nothing” proposition. By simply enjoying just one vegetarian/vegan meal a day, you’ll be able to feel the benefits in a short amount of time. Once you start feeling better you’ll naturally migrate towards more of the same and you won’t have to force yourself to adapt a complete plant-based diet until you’re totally reading and willing to do so.
As a bigger percentage of what you eat becomes plant-based, you’ll likely notice better sleep patterns, improved mental clarity, stronger bones and less joint inflammation, along with weight loss and more energy, plus a host of other health and wellness benefits. Along with these benefits comes increased awareness of other unhealthy food choices—edibles like processed foods, fast foods, trans fats (hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated oils), refined sugars, etc.
So, how did we get conditioned into choosing such unhealthy foods in the first place? We probably started off by feeling justified for the bad food choices we made. Whenever we indulged in unhealthy foods we noticed they tended to give us the illusion of temporarily feeling better or happier. The sugar boost and additional carbohydrates that we got from those unhealthy foods gave our body a spike in the production of the hormone serotonin and that made us feel a little “short-lived” happiness and brought us some comfort that we felt we needed (thus the phrase “comfort food”).
However, what we didn’t realize was that after our levels of serotonin dropped and our blood sugar level came crashing down, another reality sets in and now we’re feeling depressed, stressed and the craving for more unhealthy food repeats itself. This is because there was little to no nutritional value in the junk food that was just eaten and the vicious cycle begins once again.
By regularly eating and/or adopting a plant-based diet, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, we can put an end to this harmful cycle and the unhealthy food relationship that’s become the norm due to our poor eating habits and substandard food choices. According to American Dietetic Association , healthy, well planned vegetarian/vegan diets are nutrient dense, full of vitamins and minerals, and are typically lower in inferior fats and sugars, plus they ”are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” The healthier our diet becomes the less we crave and desire these stress creating unhealthy foods.
Adopting a plant-based diet and establishing new eating habits can be made easy by making small changes, gradually, one meal at a time. Once your body gets used to the fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and other plant-based whole foods, it will continue to grow stronger physically, mentally and emotionally, and this will work to keep your stress under control. Select plant-based meals and snacks that nourish your mind and improve your mood rather than some junk food that will disrupt your natural body chemistry, causing imbalances and other adverse health effects.
Here’s to optimal health for everyone!
References: Research by Kaufer and UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellow Elizabeth Kirby has uncovered exactly how acute stress (short-lived, not chronic) primes the brain for improved performance.  Nutrition Journal (11/09/2012).  Indicators of anxiety and depression in subjects with different kinds of diet: Vegetarians and omnivores.  Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian diets.
Editor Apprentice: Cami Krueger / Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr user Tracy Hunter