I'm beginning to think the human psyche is, inevitably, prone to stress. How much and how well we sleep per night, in addition to our regular exercise regimen, have been directly linked to the emotional weight pressing down on our shoulders, but our food choices also have something to do with it, and in a big way. According to a 2012 study published in Nutrition Journal, an omnivorous diet is rich in fatty acids, which contribute to mood swings, so if vegan foods can help stress (and, for the record, science does say going plant-based can make you a happier, as well as healthier, person) it may be worth the food swap.
In the study, to explore how food links up to stress levels, 39 participants were divided into three control groups: one that ate meat, fish, or poultry; one that ate fish three to four times in a week; and one that followed a strict, vegetarian meal plan. After a total of two weeks, experts assessed the participants' mood scores, proving that plant-based eaters were significantly less stressed and happier.
Before becoming plant-based myself, my comfort foods of choice included fried chicken, greasy fast food combos, and anything that involved piles of melted cheese (Doritos nachos, anyone?). Sure, scarfing down any of these things when tensions ran high made me feel better -- but only temporarily. First came the indulgence, followed by a hard crash with a brick in my stomach and less motivation than I had before which, apparently, is how it goes most of the time.
Rather than give in to your greasy, sugar-loaded, high-sodium cravings in times of stress, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine suggests taking the high (in other words, healthy) road:
Ironically, these high-fat foods are usually the worst possible choices because they can make us feel lethargic and less able to deal with stress. Not only that, but stress can drive up our blood pressure and raise serum cholesterol levels, wreaking havoc on our arteries and increasing our risk of heart attack. The best solution? Low-fat, high-fiber, carbohydrate-rich meals with plenty of fruits and vegetables. They soothe us without sapping our energy and give us the nutrients we need to boost our immune system.
Granted, this kind of goes without saying, but you don't have to be a plant-based eater to make nutritious choices. Everyone -- whether you follow an omnivorous or vegetarian diet -- has made the mistake of over-indulging in foods they know aren't the best for their bodies, simply because it just felt good to eat them at the time. And, yes, it's definitely unfortunate that some of the tastiest foods out there -- I'm looking at you, loaded pizza slices and ice cream topped with Nutella -- tend to do little to no good for our bodies or brains, especially in times of stress.
However, there are so, so many whole, nutrient-dense options to choose from when you need to simmer down that mental chaos. Here are a few vegan snacks to try so you can see the magic for yourself.
1. Kale, Yeah!
Packing in the leafy greens won't just make you healthier — it'll actually make you happier, too.
Options like kale, spinach, arugula, and romaine reduce inflammation caused by stress, so the next time you're feeling particularly on edge, pass on the bacon double cheeseburger and try going for a salad or green juice instead.
2. Sweet Starches
Sweet potatoes are life, guys. Not only do they curb that carby craving, drizzling one of these orange spuds with a tablespoon of almond butter can satisfy the most intense sweet tooth, which we all know definitely kicks in when stress levels spike.
3. Go Nuts
Vermont-based psychologist Ellen Albertson, Ph.D., R.D. told Eating Well that the B vitamins in nuts "keep our neurotransmitters in their happy place."
In other words, adding a serving to lunch or munching on a handful over the course of a day can keep stress levels in check and even lower blood sugar levels, too.
4. Have A Bowl Of Oats
There's nothing like a warm, soothing bowl of oats to ward off a bad mood.
When stress levels run high, it's not unusual for that happy-go-lucky mindset to drastically plummet. Instead of turning to sugary carbs like doughnuts and cake to ease the shift in moods, MIT research shows complex carbs, such as oats, encourage serotonin production in the brain and won't spike blood sugar levels.
5. Zero In On Zinc
Science says a lack of zinc in your diet can be associated with feelings of anxiety and depression, which gives you all the more reason to snack on plant-based sources of this micronutrient during times of stress.
From beans to sunflower seeds, lentils, and even tofu, there are plenty of ways to get these feel-good nutrients into your body.
6. Enjoy Some Healthy Fats
While you want to steer clear of saturated fats for the most part, healthy fats like avocado are rich in vitamin B6, protein, vitamin E, and magnesium.
Because this vibrant green fruit is so nutrient-dense, just a little of the stuff can go a long way. Add to sandwiches, salads, toasts, and even smoothies to reduce stress and prevent sugary cravings throughout the day.
7. Chocolate's Cool, Too
A little indulgence never hurt anybody, and rich cacao definitely does more good than harm.
Results of a study published in the Journal of Proteome Research showed that eating about a candy bar's worth of dark chocolate per day can lead to lower cortisol and reduced levels of fight-or-flight hormones. So allow yourself a little serving of the semi-sweet taste of dark chocolate the next time you're feeling antsy for a little bit of sugar and a whole lot of stress reduction.