Anti-Stress Diet

When life gets hard it is oh-so tempting to grab something sweet, salty, greasy, or crunchy — and all too often, high in calories. Here's what to eat instead, to boost energy and ease tension without widening your waistline.

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Traffic Jam Stress


Stress Case: You were stuck in a Saturday afternoon traffic jam and now you're home, ravenous and on edge. Standing in front of the fridge, you prepare to dive into last night's leftover Chinese.

Comfort Food: Wolfing down that salt-laden takeout is only going to drive your blood pressure even higher. Instead, opt for a roast beef sandwich, guaranteed to reenergize you for the rest of the day. Roast beef delivers iron and protein, two must-have nutrients for resiliency. Protein provides you with endurance, while iron (a mineral that many women don't get enough of) helps boost your mental muscle, so you're more efficient and less frenzied. In fact, researchers at Penn State University found that women with robust iron stores completed mental challenges faster and more accurately than women who were iron deficient. Pair that roast beef with a couple slices of rye and you'll get 20 percent of the iron you need in a day.

Mellow Meal: Mix 1 tablespoon reduced-calorie mayo with 1 teaspoon prepared horseradish. Spread over 2 slices of rye bread and top with 3 ounces lean roast beef, lettuce, tomato, and red onion. Enjoy with a crisp apple — the crunchier the better — for chewing away any lingering stress. (418 calories; 10g fat; 2g saturated fat)

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Morning Stress


Stress Case: Your kids drag their feet, so you barely get them to school on time. Starving and mad, you're ready to hit the drive-thru.

Comfort Food: When you're peeved, a fat-filled breakfast is the last thing you need. Researchers from Penn State gave volunteers either a low-fat breakfast or a high-fat, fast-food meal and then had them do stressful tasks. When they compared each group's blood pressure, the fast-food eaters had consistently higher numbers. So head to your nearest deli for a whole wheat bagel with smoked salmon. Two ounces of salmon provide 1 gram of omega-3s, believed to decrease anger and aggression and brighten your mood. How? The beneficial fats prompt your brain to produce more serotonin, a chemical that calms and promotes feelings of well-being. The bagel has fiber and complex carbs that are digested slowly for a prolonged energy release to keep you on an even keel.

Mellow Meal: Top a whole wheat bagel with 2 teaspoons honey mustard, 2 slices of tomato, and 2 ounces of smoked salmon. (410 calories; 8g fat; 1g saturated fat)

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Checkout Stress


Stress Case: It's your day to bring snacks to soccer. When you stop by the grocery store you find the world's longest checkout line. While waiting, you want to grab a candy bar.

Comfort Food: Your yen for chocolate may be no more than a carbohydrate craving, according to a 2006 Australian study. We crave carbs because they help us produce feel-good serotonin. Swap that fattening and sugary candy for a sweet mix of dried cherries and sunflower seeds. It's easily portable, good for emergency snack attacks. What's more, it's loaded with soothing complex carbs plus antioxidants and vitamin E to fight off infection. Plus, the cherries signal your body to produce its own internal antioxidants, so the benefits remain long after you've eaten the fruit.

Mellow Meal: Put together a stash of premade packs to keep in your pantry, and there will always be one ready to grab on your way out the door. In a plastic bag, toss 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds with 1/4 cup dried cherries. (165 calories; 4g fat; 0g saturated fat)

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Work-Related Stress


Stress Case: You're wrapping things up at work when your boss dumps a new project on your desk. Searching for something to tide you over for another hour, you head to the vending machine.

Comfort Food: Don't take your frustration out by gobbling nutritionally empty chips. Instead, grab a crunchy snack of almonds and baby carrots. "Crunchy foods release tension the same way that tapping your foot or chewing gum does," says Cindy Moore, RD, director of nutrition therapy at the Cleveland Clinic. "The deliberate action of biting down is an instant anxiety release." This snack provides relief of the nutritional kind too. It's packed with magnesium (22 percent of your daily dose), a mineral that may help you cope under pressure by regulating the stress hormone cortisol.

Mellow Meal: Buy baby carrots already in snack packs. Divvy up a big bag of almonds into small resealable bags. Aim for 15 carrots and 15 almonds per bag. While almonds are loaded with healthy fats, you can go overboard if you consume too many. (165 calories; 10g fat; 0g saturated fat)

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Dinner Stress


Stress Case: You spend the afternoon shuttling your kids to and from activities. With no time to prepare a healthy dinner, you consider just nuking a frozen lasagna from a box.

Comfort Food: There's more than one reason you reach for that microwave dinner. It's speedy and comforting thanks to gooey cheese and starchy noodles. But chances are it's also loaded with artery-clogging saturated fat. Whip up a veggie-filled baked ziti instead. In addition to supplying a generous dose of complex carbs, the vegetables deliver extra nutrition in the form of protein, fiber, iron, folate, and vitamin A. Plus, this dish is loaded with immune-boosting vitamin C. And that's a good thing since you need more C when you're stressed.

Mellow Meal: Boil one 16-ounce box of whole wheat ziti until tender. Microwave frozen vegetables until thawed: 2 cups peas, 2 cups broccoli, and 2 cups sliced red peppers. Drain ziti and toss with 3 cups marinara sauce and the veggies. Top with 1/2 cup 2% shredded mozzarella cheese and microwave again until cheese is melted. Serves 6. (470 calories; 9g fat; 3g saturated fat)

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Midnight Stress


Stress Case: It's 12:30 a.m. and your teen was supposed to be home at midnight. As you sit worrying at the kitchen table, that pint of ice cream in the freezer calls your name.

Comfort Food: Sweet and creamy foods have a natural calming effect because they reduce cortisol levels. But don't blow your diet to get your fix. A far lighter yogurt parfait will do the trick just as well. Plus, yogurt is rich in probiotics, live bacteria that bolster your digestive system — a good thing since it's extremely common to have tummy troubles when you're tense. In one Chinese study, patients with irritable bowel syndrome who were fed probiotics saw their symptoms improve by more than 50 percent.

Mellow Meal: Spoon half of an 8-ounce container of nonfat yogurt into a bowl (check the label to make sure it has several strains of live bacteria — it will probably say something like "live and active cultures"). Top with 1/2 cup strawberries, blueberries, or raspberries (fresh or frozen will do). Spoon remaining yogurt over fruit and top with 1 tablespoon low-fat granola. (167 calories; 1g fat; 0g saturated fat)

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The Alcohol Equation


If you like to unwind with a glass of wine or a cocktail at the end of a hectic day, be sure to keep an eye on how much you drink. The good news is that one daily serving of alcohol (5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1 1/2 ounces of 80-proof spirits) can lower your risk of heart disease. "But drinking more than one glass may impair your reasoning ability," says nutritionist Cindy Moore. "When you're already stressed you don't want to do anything to further cloud your judgment." Knocking back a couple of drinks can also derail your diet. Not only is the alcohol itself high in calories, but you're also apt to eat more than usual because you lose your willpower.

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the April 1, 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.