Time to De-Stress!

By Terri Grodner Mendoza, MS, RD, LDN and Elizabeth Schneider, MS

We all know that April is tax time, but did you know it is also Stress Awareness Month?  A recent online survey sponsored by the American Psychological Association shows that although fewer Americans are reporting they are under extreme stress compared to previous years, 35% of those surveyed say their stress has increased in the past year, and the Millennial generation (aged 18-33) seems to be the hardest hit.

Not surprisingly, stress can take a toll on both our mental and physical health and can lead to depression, anxiety, and chronic disease. What to do about it? There are a lot of recommendations on how to de-stress. Getting enough sleep, finding time to do things you enjoy, getting organized, asking for help and delegating chores and responsibilities to others when possible, are a few tips that may help. Choosing healthy options for snacks and meals and being physically active can give you more energy and make you feel better, which can lead to feeling less stressed. It can also reduce your risk of being overweight and developing chronic illnesses. As parents, you know that children can be just as susceptible to stress as adults, and making sure that they have a good sleep routine, eat well and get enough exercise can go a long way to keeping them healthy and giving them valuable lifelong lessons on how to manage stress.

Chances are we are all guilty of eating in times of stress, and emotional eating occurs when people use food as a way to cope with anxiety. Instead of eating because we’re hungry, we eat when we feel tired or overwhelmed. But reaching for that last cookie (or the entire box!) may lead to weight gain and increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes, which, in turn, can cause even more stress. In contrast, mindful eating is a practice of being fully aware of what you eat, and may help prevent stress-eating. This technique uses all our senses to develop a deep appreciation for food. People who are mindful during a meal are more sensitive to fullness cues and actually eat less.

Tips for mindful eating:

1. Before you eat: close your eyes, take a deep breath and clear your mind.
2. Look at the food you are about to eat. Examine its color, size, and shape. Think about where the food came from. Consider how many people went into the making of this food.
3. Smell the food by bringing it up to your nose and inhaling deeply. Close your eyes to appreciate the aroma even further.
4. Take a small bite of the food and taste. Break it up in your mouth, let it sit on your tongue, press it to the roof of your mouth. Is the food sweet, salty, bitter, acidic, umami (the fifth taste, sometimes called savory)…or a combination?
5. After you have eaten a few bites, take a minute to evaluate how you feel. Did you enjoy the food? Do you need another bite or are you actually satisfied?

In addition to paying more attention to what you eat, physical activity has also been shown to help reduce stress. A good goal for adults is a total of 30 minutes a day most days of the week (children should aim for 60 minutes). This can be broken up into 10 minutes at a time. Walking is the easiest form of exercise for most people, and even little changes can make a big difference. Try to fit in a few walks during into your day, choose a parking space that’s further away from your destination, or get off the train or bus one stop earlier than usual. Other forms of fun exercise include biking, running around the playground with your kids, and yoga. Need motivation? Consider giving yourself a non-food treat (like time with a favorite book) as a reward for getting through a workout program.

Don’t let the April rain bog you down. Let the spring air awaken your senses, eat mindfully, and look forward to being physically active outdoors in the beautiful spring weather!

Terri Mendoza is a Nutrition Education Specialist for the Massachusetts WIC Nutrition Program and can be reached at Terri.Mendoza@state.ma.us. Elizabeth Schneider is a dietetic intern at Simmons College. WIC is a health and nutrition program that provides families with free healthy food, nutrition education, breastfeeding support, and more. To see if you are eligible for WIC, call 1-800-WIC-1007 or visit http://www.mass.gov/wic.

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