The recipe for a healthy diet isn't complicated. Make sure you have a balanced intake of food, with plenty of fruit and vegetables (at least five different types a day), enough carbohydrates and protein and not too much fat, salt, sugar or alcohol. Add in to that mix a preference for whole grains, (brown bread, pasta and rice) and make a habit of choosing unprocessed foods and you'll help yourself feel as good as you can, just by watching your daily diet.
Not every day is the same, however. Sometimes we put ourselves under extra physical or mental pressure, sometimes life sneaks up and gives us a nasty shock. When that happens adjusting your eating habits can help your body help you to get through.
It's something we can't prepare for - unexpected redundancy, a partner walking out, the death of someone we love. Getting bad news out of the blue can catapult you out of your normal, comfortable life into days and nights filled with stress.
Any kind of stress affects the body and the brain, but sudden onset of stress can have an extreme effect. The sudden release of adrenalin and cortisol - the fight or flight hormones - prepare you to fight for your life, but can play havoc with your body, often making you feel queasy, and reducing your appetite.
While you may not feel like eating, you do need to. ‘If you don’t eat, your blood sugar level will drop,’ explains Dr Marilyn Glenville, nutritional therapist. If you don’t supply your body with fuel you’re likely to feel the physical effects, including headaches and tiredness, and put yourself under further stress.
Eating little and often is a practical way of dealing with this situation. Faced with a full meal, you may not be able to eat any of it, whereas a snack, such as a piece of wholemeal toast or a small bowl of soup or porridge may be more manageable.
Find out what stress does to your health and how to manage it
Careful with comfort food
'People who are under stress may resort to comfort foods, which are often high in fat and sugar,' says nutritionist Jacqui Lowdon of the British Dietetic Association (BDA). 'Try to eat some low glycaemic foods (those that release energy slowly, such as whole grains, apples, oranges and pears, porridge and pulses) to keep your blood sugars stable. This will help reduce your risk of mood swings and erratic eating.'
Including vitamin-rich foods in your diet is always important, but at times of high stress it's worth topping up your B and C vitamins, as they have been linked to aiding stress control. 'Vitamin C has been shown to reduce the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol,' explains Glenys Jones, nutritionist with MRC Human Nutrition Research. 'Red peppers, broccoli, kiwi fruit, goji berries, oranges and cantaloupe melon are all good sources of vitamin C. Eat them raw or steamed.'
'The B vitamins are often referred to as the 'stress vitamins,'' says Glenys Jones. 'They're involved in converting carbohydrates into energy. Good sources are wholegrains, dairy products, legumes, lean meats, poultry, nuts and fortified cereals and breads. Oily fish can also be helpful, as the omega-3 fatty acids they contain can help to reduce blood pressure.'
Even if you are only eating a little, try to make sure that food is of high nutritional value. And the same applies if stress leads you to comfort eat, steer clear of fat and sugar-laden foods, and head for more fruit and veg. You'll feel better for it.
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Working those muscles
It seems pretty obvious, that if you use more energy, you need more fuel. But if you're being more physically active than usual - on an activity holiday, or digging the garden, for instance - don't just pile more food on your plate. There's a smarter way to keep your body up to speed.
‘You do need carbohydrates for energy, but you also need protein to feed your muscles,’ says Dr Marilyn Glenville. ‘Extra physical activity puts a drain on them. Eating extra protein feeds your muscles and makes them less prone to aches and tiredness.’
'Organic eggs are a first class source of protein, so eggs on toast would be a good breakfast, perhaps followed by a tuna salad for lunch. Give yourself more tuna than you would in a sandwich, to raise your protein level. For vegetarians, nuts, seeds and quinoa (which cooks up like rice) are good sources of protein.'
Think about planning ahead, too. ‘It’s important to have a good, balanced diet that’s rich in complex carbohydrates for at least a few days beforehand, to ensure that the body is fuelled for the activity ahead,’ says Glenys Jones.
Keeping yourself going through the day is important, too. Don't skip breakfast, as you'll need those calories to keep you going. Have healthy snacks, like fruit or cereal bars, if you need to eat between meals. Perhaps most important of all, make sure you drink enough. Whether you're hiking, planting or decorating, keep a bottle of water with you, and drink from it often.
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It’s not just your body that needs fuel. Your brain makes up about two percent of your body weight, but uses 20 to 30 percent of your body’s energy. So if you’re putting your brain under greater than usual pressure, because you’re busy at work or studying, you need to make sure that you’re giving it enough fuel to work with.
‘Our bodies use fat and protein for energy,’ explains Bridget Aisbitt of the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF). ‘The brain can only use glucose, which it gets from carbohydrates.’ It’s important to keep your blood glucose levels steady – if they fluctuate, it won’t help your mental processes work to best effect. ‘ Increase your intake of the so-called ‘brain foods’,’ suggests Glenys Jones. ‘These are foods such as whole grains that provide good levels of the B vitamins, that have been shown to help with memory and recall. Wholegrains also contain complex carbohydrates, which release energy slowly and help to fuel your mental activity throughout the day.’
'Green leafy vegetables, oily fish, seeds and nuts are also good as they contain vitamin E, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, which help with cognitive function,' says Glenys.
Your brain won't perform well if you're dehydrated, so be sure to keep your fluid levels up. And if you're sitting an exam, give yourself a perfectly fair advantage and boost your energy with an apple or a banana before you turn your papers over.
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If you've never suffered from insomnia, you're lucky. Many of us have known the long, dark hours in the middle of the night, when we've woken and all attempts at getting back to sleep fail. 'This is the most common type of insomnia,'; says Marilyn Glenville. 'You have to get it right and eat sensibly during the day to avoid wakeful nights. If you eat a lot of sugary foods you can get a roller-coaster of blood-sugar release that goes on through the day and night.'
‘If you’re waking in the middle of the night, have a cracker before you go to bed. This will help to keep your blood-sugar stable from bed-time until morning.’ You should also be aiming for blood-sugar stability throughout the day, with regular meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner-time, and mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks.’
Read our strategies for getting a better night's sleep
Avoid afternoon tea (and coffee)
It’s a good idea to steer clear of sugar and coffee. Avoiding tea and coffee from mid-afternoon onwards should help to keep caffeine from keeping you too stimulated to sleep at night.
‘Carbohydrate-based foods, such as wholegrains and cereals help with the production of serotonin, which helps you to sleep,’ says Glenys Jones. ‘Milk and other dairy products are a source of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps promote sleep, so a milky drink at night can be beneficial.’
Watching when and how much you eat is important, too. Go to bed stuffed to the gills and you’re likely to be uncomfortable, and your body will still be digesting the double helping of steak and kidney pudding, jacket potato and veg, all of which can stop you dropping off. But go to bed hungry and that can keep you awake too. Not too much, not too little and not too late.
Stuck in bed
Taking to your bed may seem like a fine idea when you’re doing your daily battle with the local one-way system, but enforced periods of immobility, following an operation or an accident, for instance, aren’t actually much fun. You might be tempted to make those endless hours pass more with the help of food, but watching what you eat is even more important when you’re recuperating than when you’re healthy.
'If you've had surgery, it's important to eat well to aid your recovery,'; says Jacqui Lowdon of the BDA. 'You need good nutrition to heal wounds. Protein is especially important, as are vitamins A, B, C and E, and iron and zinc.'
If you’re immobile for any length of time you might need to reduce your portion sizes slightly, so you don’t put on too much weight. However, it’s a balancing act. You don’t want to cut back so much that you aren’t getting enough nutrients.
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Vitamin D deficiency
Eating a diet with less refined foods and more complex, whole foods should give you enough nutrients without overloading you with calories.
‘If you are bed-bound, it’s important to think about Vitamin D, which is mostly made in the body, on exposure to sunlight,’ says Glenys Jones. Oily fish, eggs and fortified breakfast cereals are good sources of Vitamin D if you aren’t able to get out into the sun.
Make sure your diet also includes good sources of the amino acid glutamine (you’ll find this in poultry, fish, dairy products and leafy vegetables). When you’re ill or injured, your body uses glutamine to help heal wounds and improve your recovery. Eating well could make all the difference.
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