When I’m super stressed, I crave my favorite comfort food: homemade triple chocolate brownies with coconut flakes, served with a healthy dollop of almond butter and freshly cracked vanilla sea salt.
To my kids, these brownies represent a “We love you, mom!” special-baked-goodie moment, but in my book they’re a “time to pause and evaluate my stress levels” food. Craving brownies equates my body’s need for nutrients depleted during prolonged stress—magnesium, salt, protein, fats, carbs and caffeine (read: quick energy).
Dark chocolate with sea salt absolutely contains nutrients that help reduce stress. However, please don’t eat an entire pan of brownies. Offer some to your neighbor (safely, with social distancing, of course!).
Then, call in the much-needed nutrient-reconnaissance team: leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, berries and citrus. Basically, lots of vitamins, minerals and fiber. The key is fiber.
Why fiber? Fiber modulates stress by balancing blood sugar, improving gut health and regulating bowels. Fiber-rich foods are plant foods, which also contain tons of nutrients. Don’t stress about the differences between soluble and insoluble fiber—or ideal quantities—both forms are important for different reasons. Focus on eating a wide range of plant foods every single day, and likely you’ll consume both forms and hit optimal fiber targets.
When consumed en masse and with lots of variation, veggies, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds contain practically every nutrient your body needs during times of stress working in sync: B vitamins, antioxidants A, C, E and selenium, magnesium and iron. Add a pinch of sea salt or seaweed (sodium is depleted during stress and veggies contain very little) to your meals, plus ferments (happy gut food), and voila!
Don’t forget to invite the fun-guy to the party: mushrooms are a must. They are one of the few plant sources of B12, depleted during stress.
Interestingly, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruit contain more fiber than vegetables. Therefore, by focusing on all plant foods you’ll automatically consume ample fiber and most nutrients that aid the stress response. Here’s a sampling of 10 servings of plants containing stress-support nutrients one might consume in a single day:
One cup fresh spinach (0.7 grams of fiber), one cup boiled beets (3.8 grams), half cup cooked mushrooms (0.5 grams), half cup cooked lentils (5.8 grams), four Brussels sprouts (2 grams), one steamed artichoke (5 grams), half cup sauerkraut (3.4 grams), 49 pistachios (9 grams), one ounce chia seeds (11 grams) and 30 raspberries (8 grams). Total fiber: 49.1 grams.
The recommended daily intake of fiber for Americans is 25 grams for males and 38 grams for females, though most of us consume just 10-15 grams daily, less than half of what we need! An ideal daily intake to prevent many diseases (all diseases are exacerbated by stress) is 38 grams from whole foods, not supplements.
Our cravings for “fast fuel uppers” are likely a signal of stress depletion. To balance the body, plan meals containing mostly plant-based foods, aiming for 10 servings per day. When we replace what, deep down, we know we don’t need, anyway—bread, chips, sugar, wine, coffee—with foods to support the stress response, we can still treat ourselves to that salted brownie.
Jamie Truppi, MSN, is an integrative nutritionist focusing on functional foods and family wellness.