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Stressed out? Eating right may help take the edge off

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Stress. It plays havoc with emotions and takes a physical toll. But what if there were ways to diminish its effect.

The answer may be both simple and complex involving food and chemistry, choice and determination.

“Change is the No. 1 problem for people,” said Aimee Jambor, Brainerd School District nurse. “We are dealing with change all the time whether it’s in jobs or at home ... and that naturally creates stress in our life.”

Jambor said there are options to manage stress through what people choose to eat. While many people make changes only after a health scare of a stoke or heart attack, Jambor wondered how different life may be if that change happened earlier. She recently presented “Stick a Fork in It: Controlling Stress through Diet” as the first session in a monthly “Spotlight on Health” series. The series is sponsored by the Center for Lifelong Learning at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.

Life changes are often behind stress. Divorce. Death. Job. Illness. Pregnancy. Relationships. Danger. Retirement. But even smaller hiccups in the day can add up. Perhaps the 9 a.m. office meeting was rough, sending a surge of Adrenalin. Now the individual is upset and a walk to the break room brings coffee for a shot of caffeine and a fried doughnut. By 2 p.m. the blood sugar is dropping. Tired at the end of the day, fast food looks good for a quick bite. And when the head hits the pillow, that 9 a.m. meeting crisis is back before a racing brain and sleep is illusive. By the next morning, the day begins with fatigue instead of a well-rested start. And the cycle begins again.

“Sound familiar?” Jambor asked. “That’s the state of stress that if you stay in too long you are in trouble.”

Consequences come in job burnout and real physical damage to the body, Jambor said. Muscle aches, headache, sleeplessness, overeating, may all be responses to stress. People respond to stress with a fight or flight, she said, in a fear or anger response. “You have to figure out for yourself what causes a reaction and get out of it,” Jambor said.

Making a change in the reaction may be as simple as taking a quick walk and some deep breaths after that 9 a.m. meeting ends and the stress starts to climb. Jambor said stepping outside for a brief moment can be enough to bring the stress level down. It’s not the time to shoot off an angry email or Facebook post. Jambor said few people make good decisions when they are in a reactionary mode. It takes a self reminder that situational stress passes and things may be better after a good night’s sleep.

In terms of food intake, Jambor said what people reach for in comfort foods may help feed the stress cycle instead of easing it. Ice cream, pasta, chips, candy, coffee — carbohydrates, sugar, fats and caffeine — are common comfort foods because they feel and taste good. But the body chemistry may then mimic the stress level with a peak of high blood sugar. Jambor said coming down from that high leaves a body feeling battered and without energy.

Making a different food choice could carve off the peaks and smooth the body’s response to stress. It may be as simple as deciding on a smaller portion or adding a complex carbohydrate or protein to the mix. Instead of ice cream, perhaps yogurt and fruit. Instead of chips, perhaps it’s a piece of bread with peanut butter. Or maybe it’s just changing the type of chip with multiple options out there now that are more healthy. Instead of chocolate, choose dark chocolate. Those changes keep insulin in the system longer and smooths out peaks and valleys.

Other tips:

• Eat six times a day. “You’ll be amazed at how better you feel and how much energy you’ll have into the evening. When you have low blood sugar none of us function very well.”

• Drink water throughout the day. Jambor said people don’t have to be hung up on eight glasses of water, but should stay hydrated because it detoxifies the system. Drinking a glass of water before eating may help reduce food portions to feel full. As a plus, Jambor said people feel better when hydrated.

• Reduce food portions. Most Americans eat 75 percent more food than they need to for a healthy intake, Jambor said.

• Eat breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up. An egg is a recommended choice as brain food, Jambor said. Or for those interested in weight loss, eat an apple as it kicks up the metabolism. Add a low-fat cheese to the apple intake to maintain a feeling of being full longer.

• Read labels. Salt sprinkled on food isn’t the problem in sodium intake, Jambor said, but the sodium used to preserve processed food is.

• Eat fresh foods. Look at farmer’s markets and locally grown produce.

• Exercise. The natural endorphins released through exercise also combat stress, provide a natural lift to mood and help reduce weight.

• Start. Even if it takes small steps such as drinking one less soda pop per day or exercising for 10 minutes a day, or thinking about the food choices. Even a pizza order can be made with healthier choices, replacing pepperoni perhaps with veggies.

• Walk away from white sugar and white flour.

“A lot of overeating is similar to stress,” Jambor said. “We just get into a lot of bad habits.”

Linda Geisenhof said attending the seminar was helpful and provided good ideas, including those offered by participants. Sitting next to her, Katie Smude said making changes can have a visible benefit in a short time, such as no white sugar or flour for a week. Smude said: “Drinking water I could not believe the change that could make in your system.”

Jambor said: “If everybody changed one thing, how much healthier would we all be?”

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at 855-5852 or

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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