Stress and Diet: The Two-Way Street to Wellness

    There is something we can all say we are familiar with: stress. Whether you are a student or a working adult there are times when things don’t go your way, when time seems to be moving twice as fast and deadlines sneak up on you when you least expect them. At times like this, it becomes difficult to find the energy or motivation to maintain a healthy diet.

    “The only way I can explain the stress when studying medicine is, imagine you are in the middle of the woods, on a mountain, being chased by a pack of wolves. On a scale from 1 to 10 it would be a 29”, says Georgia, a 19 years old college student in Cluj-Napoca. “Traveling between buildings during our only breaks just to get to class on time doesn’t leave a lot of time to go and get yourself actual food”.

    Whether you would describe your days as full or passing slowly and your work and studies as a passion or a waste of time, these are situations we often deal with in our lives. 

    “Full, a lot of clients, a lot of work to be done, little time to fix issues, in general they should be solved in a chronological order but there are too many emergencies and unfortunately we can’t fix the issues in a chronological order”, says Alina, a 53 years old public relations manager in Turda. She also states that this lack of time also leads to her not eating properly. “I can’t maintain a healthy diet as long as I don’t have an established lunch break”.

    “There are days when things don’t go as they should at work. So it depends, when things don’t go your way you are more stressed, obviously”, says Vian, a 60 years old construction worker from Gherla. “If you do what you like it’s ok but if you’re only there for the pay you can only wait for the day to be over so you can go home. It’s different for everyone.”

    Whether it’s work or school, we are all familiar with these feelings of stress, things not going our way, work piling up seemingly out of nowhere and so little time to do it all.

    Juggling work, school, family and taking care of our own selves can be not only difficult but also time consuming. Often we can feel like we need to somehow make more time, even if it’s to the detriment of our health. Be it not having the time, the fast and easy access, or motivation, eating healthy is often something that remains in Instagram fitness and health influencers’ posts and our family physicians’ advice.

    Of course, there are a lot of factors to consider when talking about diet and mental health. Time constraints, socio-economic status, genetics, culture, education and media consumed, all have a role in the development of different dietary habits. Stress is one of these factors.

    In recent years we started realizing the important link between our diets and our stress levels. Everything from the foods we eat to our intestinal flora has a role in ensuring that not only our body is well but also our minds. It can be a vicious cycle, our stress levels affect our dietary habits and lead to a diet lacking in necessary nutrients which, in turn, increases our stress.

    Dietary nutritionist Laura Grecu explains: “An example would be that stress uses up the magnesium in our body. We become more stressed, we no longer pay attention to what we eat, we eat highly processed food, food that lacks in magnesium and we become very agitated and very stressed.” 

    Our brains are closely linked to the gut, meaning that what we eat affects the health of our intestine and the health of our intestine affects our stress levels resulting in this vicious cycle of stress and poor dietary habits. Stress affects the bacteria in the intestine which is closely linked to the functioning of the brain. Thus, a poor diet in nutrients impacts how our brain functions and, by extension, our mental state. Basically, as Dr. Grecu explains, “When the intestine is affected, an abnormal flora develops, digestion is affected and there are more and more studies that link the way food is digested and the bacteria in our intestine to our moods”.

    Multiple factors including stress can affect this process by weakening the intestinal barrier which decides what is allowed to pass in our blood. That means the bacteria from the intestines can travel through the barrier provided by the intestines and affect not only the immune system but also the nervous system. Stress is also known to impact the diversity and formation of the intestinal flora according to a study published by Frontiers, that explains the effects of stress on the intestine. The intestinal flora is also known to have a role in producing dopamine and serotonin, known as the happiness hormones.

    When talking about both our mental and physical health, not only the intestinal flora, but also the intestine itself has a very important role. The intestines’ role is to absorb nutrients from the foods we consume and send it through our blood to our other organs, keeping us healthy and giving our body energy. One of the organs that consumes a lot of the nutrients and energy provided by food is our brain as explained by Harvard Health Publishing. Our brain is always working to help us think, to keep us breathing and allow us to use our senses and this energy consumption only grows when we are stressed, using more nutrients. 

    We get this energy from the food we eat. Not all food is equally nutritions. Highly processed foods often lack nutrients that are necessary for our body to be healthy and are linked to a number of health complications according to Cambridge University Press.

    We all have different dietary habits and needs, but there are still patterns that can be applied whether it’s not eating when stressed, emotional eating or busy schedules that may not allow for very consistent meals. Laura Grecu, dietary nutritionist, presents to us some of these patterns in dietary habits as well as their consequences: “Well, there are patterns that apply to all people. They either have disorganized eating, or they feel like they’re barely eating while gaining weight but they don’t actually eat food, this means they eat foods that they don’t consider to be actual food like coffee, juice, all kinds of candy, chocolate, sweets and so on and so on.”

    Alina, public relations manager of a bank, explains how she doesn’t consider what she eats during the day as actual food, or actual meals. “We eat in a rush, whilst working, we always have work to do and while we do that we also eat. So, of course, we often eat pretzels and chips and snacks… we don’t eat a warm meal or a consistent meal that we should have at noon, for example.”

    There are also times when a lack of preparation or a lack of time affects not only what we eat, but if we eat during the day in the first place.

    “When I was at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy our schedules were so full and we had to travel between classes to get to the other buildings which took up all our lunch break. So if you didn’t already have at least a sandwich with you, you’d either starve or live off of candy. There were also days when we had classes from 8 AM to 8 PM with no breaks, so no time to eat,” says Georgia, a college student.

    There are also patterns regarding the amount of food people eat on an emotional basis. Our mental state, especially stress, can affect what food we crave and how much of it we eat. “[…] the individual’s mentality and dysfunctional behaviors linked to food and even a lack of emotional coping skills can lead to emotional eating”, says psychologist Diana Căzănescu,  explaining how our own stress and overall mental health can affect our diet. This can translate into stress eating or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, undereating because of said stress.

    Vian, the construction worker, says: “When I have stressful days, I don’t really feel like eating because I’m stressed, I don’t eat as much. Yeah, when I’m stressed I can’t really eat.” Georgia also states that when she was studying  medicine, the lack of time and the environment as well as the stress resulted in her not eating. “I lost 5 kilograms in three weeks.” Of course, there are other patterns such as amounts of food eaten, their caloric value, the type of food we crave and how we split our meals. 

    “The most unfortunate patterns are the ones consisting of disorganized eating and highly processed food. If you eat more food, but natural types with a lot of nutrients it’s not as bad as when you follow the other disorganized pattern with highly processed food and little nutrients. And I don’t mean only lacking in fats and carbohydrates, but there are also lots of vitamins, minerals, anti-inflammatory substances, antioxidants, anticarcinogens that exist in fresh food and that get destroyed through processing them,” Dr. Grecu explains.

    When talking about fast food and highly processed food being unhealthy we don’t only refer to the fact that they are high in fats but also to the refined sugars and artificial sweeteners in the final product. 

    According to a recent study, women who ate a lot of processed food, around nine servings a day, were 50% more likely to develop depression than those who didn’t eat as much highly processed food. The study was published in the journal JAMA Network Open and looked at the eating habits and mental health status of more than 31,000 women between the ages of 42 and 62. The study found that consuming high amounts of foods and drinks that contain artificial sweeteners also has a particularly negative effect on both the physical and mental health of people.

    So if we know this highly processed food is bad for us, why do we eat it? The answer is different for every person, ranging from cravings, to easy access to that kind of food, to time constraints. Imagine you are coming home from work or university and after a long day cooking a healthy meal. For some it may not seem like a lot. To others it may seem like going to bed slightly hungry may not seem like a big sacrifice for an extra hour or two of rest.

    Having a balanced diet goes a long way in making our lives easier and even improving our mood. The problem is that many junk foods can improve our mood; they are cheap, convenient and after a long day ordering food sounds much better than spending the precious little free time you have in front of the stove cooking and washing the dishes afterwards. So we may be tempted to get faster, unfortunately often less healthy, alternatives.

    Balancing work and private life has become harder and harder over the years. Longer working hours, classes, household chores and family affairs leave very little personal time left to enjoy. It can be tempting to make more time by skipping a meal or getting some junk food which is easy to get, quick and often more affordable than shopping for healthy foods that may require cooking. Lack of personal transportation can also stand in the way of our ability to have access to healthier meals or groceries. Even if we do get the recommended three meals a day they may often lack in quality and necessary nutrients. 

    Even if we eat at the restaurant, we should still take into consideration what is known as The Healthy Plate structure, as well as how big the portions are, Dr. Grecu reminds us. “Restaurant portions have a lot of calories and are, generally, quite large; we should try to split them.” We should try to maintain a healthy diet without wasting food in the process. Laura Grecu also explains that “we need to pay attention to the serving size. We can eat half the food at one meal and half at the next meal. Eating more than we need at one meal will not make us last longer before needing to eat again.”

    How do we make time for a healthy diet?

    We may be tempted to try following the advice we see on social media, the popular diets, supplements or just general advice on how to arrange our meals throughout the day. The problem is that dietary advice does not suit everyone the same. There are many factors to take into consideration, from time constraints to how our body processes food and if we have or do not have certain necessary nutrients. An example of this is the advice of not eating after 6 PM. Dr. Grecu explains that “It’s not necessarily wrong but there are people that take it as a hard rule that can’t be broken, they try to resist until they go to bed and when time comes to sleep, they get incredibly hungry and raid their fridges and this recommendation is supposed to reduce the consumption of food for people that don’t eat all day and get home and eat non-stop.” While the purpose is to reduce food consumption the results can be the opposite if there is no excess food consumption in the first place or if the person plans to split their meals throughout the day.

    Not every person consuming that media happens to have the medical knowledge to understand in depth the reasons and effects for all this different advice. So we are left wondering what we can do to be healthy and maintain a diet that works for us. “These recommendations have very credible arguments, but they don’t represent the universal truth. And they certainly don’t apply to everyone. Taking this kind of advice trying to eat healthy you can easily create chaos in your diet and end up thinking you can’t do it.” says Dr. Grecu. The answer isn’t hard to find, she continues to explain: “Having a healthy diet can be, for the large majority of people without health complications, very simple and accessible.”

    Having a healthy diet shouldn’t be complicated. Even on long days, even at work with only a convenience store nearby as our source of food we can still have a healthy diet if we pay attention to what we eat. We have an easy to follow and accessible structure to help called The Healthy Plate structure. Nutrition Source by Harvard University gives an easy explanation for this structure. 

    First of all, vegetables and fruits should be ½ of our plate. An important thing to remember is that The Healthy Plate does not consider potatoes as vegetables because of their negative impact on blood sugar levels. This will allow us to get the vitamins and other nutrients we need. We also need to split the other half of our plate between whole grains and proteins. Around ¼ of our meal should be whole grains such as whole bread, oats, whole wheat pasta or brown rice. Other refined grains such as white rice and white bread can have a negative impact on our blood sugar levels. The other ¼ of our plate should be proteins, processed as little as possible. Foods rich in protein can be fish, beans, nuts or steaks, though we are advised to limit red meat. In moderation we should also consume healthy plant oils like olive oils, sunflower oil and canola oil. It is advised to remember that low-fat does not necessarily mean healthy and what we should try to avoid are actually trans fats found in hydrogenated oils.

    Of course, we have all heard the “drink two liters of water a day” advice, and it still is great advice, but we can also drink tea or coffee if we want our drinks to taste of something. The important part of this is to avoid sugary drinks and try not to add sugar to your tea or coffee.

    Last, but not least, it is important to stay active as it helps both our physical and mental health. We should try to find some time in our schedule for a little daily exercise and avoid a sedentary lifestyle. 

    Psychologist Diana Căzănescu advises us to try to find time for ourselves even if our schedules can often be overwhelming. We should try to take a moment to breathe and spend as much time as possible on things and people that make us happy. “Most of us may happen to have a full schedule and it’s true that finding a perfect balance between work and personal life can be difficult if not impossible. I think that what we could do is try not to aim for doing everything perfectly and take advantage, as much as we can, of the free time we have and try to exercise, spend time with our loved ones and try as much as possible to disconnect from our professional life in our free time.”

    She also encourages us to take time to disconnect from work and not bring it home, especially when our stress is caused by our work life. An important part of reducing our stress levels is being able to identify what causes it. We need to be aware of what causes it, what effect stress has on us and what we can do to minimize our stress in order to maintain a healthier lifestyle.

    “In order to reduce our stress levels it’s important to engage in pleasant activities, practice or hobbies and impose limits between our work and personal life, as well as becoming more aware of what causes us high levels of stress,” says Diana Căzănescu.