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Anytime you're feeling stressed, what's one of the most notorious food items to grab? Ice cream.
But it's time to step away from the pint. "Ice cream and chips may make you feel better in the short term, but in the long term, they can actually make your health—and stress level—worse," says Abby Langer, R.D., owner of Abby Langer Nutrition in Toronto. "When you're feeling frazzled, you need to take care of your body, not beat it down more with junk food."
Instead of cozying up to Ben & Jerry, try these 11 foods that fight stress to create calm from the inside out.
This versatile fruit is an excellent source of vitamin B6, which has been shown to reduce stress by helping to maintain proper nervous system functioning. Avocados also provide a heart-healthy serving of potassium (one avocado has 975mg, while a banana has only 422mg), which helps regulate blood pressure. To get your fix, whip up a morning avocado toast or mix together a bowl of guacamole. (P.S. Here's how to properly cut an avocado.)
This meaty fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which research shows are a natural mood booster. Additionally, omega-3s help protect your heart, which is important when you're taxed. Stress causes the hormone cortisol to rise, and if levels remain high, it can wreak havoc on your cardiovascular system (not to mention lead to chronic inflammation). Salmon is also a big component of the Mediterranean diet, an eating plan that's consistently ranked as one of the best thanks to its myriad health benefits.
3. Tart Cherry Juice
It's not just foods that fight stress—drinks can, too. That's why Alex Caspero, R.D., creator of Delish Knowledge, suggests downing tart cherry juice if you're feeling particularly harried. "Sugary and highly caffeinated foods and drinks can increase jittery feelings and spike blood sugar levels, which can affect your mood," she explains.
But cherry juice offers a melatonin fix that can not only help calm you down but also encourage healthy sleep patterns. Sip on a glass in the evening, or finish your workout with an 8-ounce glass, as it may speed up workout recovery.
One cup of cooked broccoli contains twice as much vitamin C as a medium orange, which helps control blood pressure and cortisol levels. It also strengthens the immune system, which can be weakened by stress (making you more susceptible to colds). Mix broccoli into a morning omelet, or dip it into hummus for an afternoon snack. (You could also try these healthy Thai recipes that'll make you forget all about takeout.)
One serving of this healthy nut contains 20 percent of your daily recommended value of magnesium, a mineral that also helps manage cortisol levels. Studies have also shown that magnesium has a calming effect on the nervous system and may promote better sleep. "Plus, we all want to crunch on something when we're stressed, right?" says Langer. Keep a stash close by, and divide into one-ounce servings (about the size of a shot glass) to nibble on throughout the day.
Skip the fried appetizers and order a round of steamed edamame the next time you hit the sushi bar. "Some nutrients can enhance mood, while fatty comfort foods can physically bring you down because they're harder to digest," says Marisa Moore, R.D., a nutritionist in Atlanta and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. As a bonus, the veggie is rich in B vitamins—along with vitamin D, folic acid, calcium, and magnesium—a combo platter of qualities that help the body produce the mood-improving neurotransmitter serotonin. (Did you know essential oils can provide stress relief, too?)
7. Whole-Wheat Pasta
If you're looking for foods that fight stress, don't necessarily rule out all comfort foods. Some options, like pasta, boost levels of calming serotonin, says Caspero. "Plus, cozy foods just feel good to eat! They give you a temporary relief from whatever the stress is as you focus on the pleasure of eating instead of the source of our stressors," she explains.
But it's not just about the soothing factor. Pasta can also crank up serotonin production, and those made with 100 percent whole-wheat flour offer fiber and protein, which can help keep hunger at bay. (Related: 10 Paleo-Friendly Comfort Food Dinners)
Did you know that magnesium and stress are connected? It's true: "Those with low magnesium are more likely to have elevated C-reactive protein levels," says Caspero, and researchers discovered that high C-reactive protein counts are associated with more stress and greater risk for depression. Not to mention magnesium helps control cortisol and blood pressure, she adds.
The solution, then, is to fuel up with magnesium rockstars—one of which is beans. Pinto, lima, and kidney beans are particularly great, so pile a scoop on your burrito, stir into soups, or toss with pasta.
9. Citrus Fruits
An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but oranges can ward off stress. "High doses of vitamin C have been shown to acutely lower blood pressure, which can spike during periods of stress," says Caspero. (Here are nine ways to get your fill of vitamin C with citrus fruits.) For more hunger-fighting fiber, snack on the whole fruit rather than gulping on the juice alone, as juicing often strips fruits of the important nutrient.
Rather than reaching for a box of chocolates, soothe your sweet tooth with strawberry slices. "When we're stressed, we like to take our minds off what's going on, so we turn to food because it makes us feel good and it distracts us," says Langer. Certain foods that you enjoyed as a kiddo, say, chocolate, potato chips, or chicken casserole, may elicit fond memories, "so we eat them to put ourselves back into that happy place," she says. Besides being a source of natural sugars (rather than added ones that can cause a blood sugar roller coaster), a cup of strawberries provides 149 percent of your daily recommended value of blood pressure-controlling vitamin C.
11. Whole-Grain Toast
That's right, carbs aren't off limits when you're looking for foods that fight stress. But if you limit the refined (white) variety, your body and brain will thank you. "Carbohydrates help our bodies synthesize the calming hormone serotonin, and whole-grain bread offers a healthy dose plus B vitamins" for a one-two punch of tranquility," says Langer. Next time you hit the 3 p.m. slump, reach for a triple-play of foods that fight stress: smash a quarter avocado on a slice of whole-grain toast and finish with a couple spoonfuls of black beans. (BTW, here's the difference between whole wheat and whole grain.)