7 Ways to Eat for Reduced Stress
Published on January 7, 2022
Last updated January 10, 2022
By Nadine Kenney Johnstone
I used to view food as both time-intensive and triggering. I ate whatever was quickest to prepare and consume: hardboiled eggs on the train ride to work, a microwaved meal for lunch between meetings. Dinner prompted a calculation of calories that made me feel guilty if I over-indulged.
I wanted to have a better relationship with food. After all, I was a nutrition major before I switched gears and became a creative writing professor, but while I might have studied dietetics in college, I learned about actual nourishment from my chef husband.
The first time he cooked me a meal (perfectly seared salmon with a maple-dijon glaze, served alongside roasted sweet potatoes with thyme and oregano) I was about to start shoveling the food into my mouth when I noticed him taking it all in. I copied his reverence and took my time, delighting in the smells, colors, and presentation. I truly tasted food for the first time, and it marked a seismic shift in my life.
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These days, I lead journaling and meditation retreats that are catered by my husband, and we focus on nourishment as a form of self-nurturing. Food used to be stressful, but I now view it as a source of stress relief. Here are the tips we teach and live by. Try one each day over the course of a week, or plan a special meal as a mini-retreat to incorporate all seven practices.
1. Think of meals as a way to nurture yourself
Rather than adding another thing to your to-do list, shift your mindset around what you’re already doing: eating. It’s important to tend to yourself, and approach food as nourishment (rather than just calories). Think of eating as an act of caretaking by giving yourself healthy fuel. Imagine your body as your best friend who is tired and stressed. How would you nurture her through food? What foods would you bypass so as not to burden her digestion? What behaviors and meals feel friendly and nourishing to her?
2. Neutralize your nervous system
The nervous system plays a huge role in the way we digest and process nutrients. If our nervous system is at ease, it can transition more smoothly into rest and digest mode. At retreats, I guide women into a calm state through yoga nidra meditation before meals so that the dishes they eat can be easily digested. No time for nidra? Just take three slow breaths before you eat.
3. Choose ingredients that reduce stress
Some ingredients have been demonstrated to actually help you stress out less. To lower your stress levels, opt for foods that are rich in magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B, and probiotics, all of which have been shown in studies to help reduce stress. Does that sound like a tall order? If you make a meal of baked salmon with wilted baby spinach and a miso dressing, you’re hitting all of these — and enjoying yourself, too.
4. Create a sensory ceremony
To “make sacred” simply means to “dedicate” or “set apart.” Try making one meal a sacred part of your day by creating a ceremony around it: light a candle, use your favorite plates, or play soothing music. In our house, dinner is together time. My husband plays music while he cooks, and my son and I dance in the kitchen. When dinner is ready, we light the candles and set the table. We pause to hold hands and say what we were grateful for that day. Then we take in the food — the colors, the smells, the steam rising — and say thank you for this nourishing meal.
5. Practice mindful eating
The more you slow down and savor your meals, the more your nervous system will know that eating is an enjoyable experience, not a stressful one. When you eat, slow down enough to chew 10 times before you swallow. Your digestive system will also thank you since it won’t have as much work to do. Can you put your fork down between bites? Let the food move over your taste buds so that you’re actually enjoying the layers of flavors. After all, what’s the point of preparing a delicious meal if you never take the time to truly taste it?
6. Stop and digest
Try practicing “hara hachi bu,” which means eating until you’re just 80% full. Think of portions less as a caloric measure, but as the amount of work you want to give to your digestive system. Personally, I tend to eat small meals often throughout the day, so I typically use small plates or divide my meal in half when served a large portion at a restaurant. Notice when you feel satisfied, rather than stuffed. That’s a good place to stop eating. And if you’re craving something sweet after a meal, opt for foods that contain digestive enzymes, like pineapple or dark chocolate.
7. Give yourself gratitude
At the end of the day, thank yourself for being so good to your body. And when you aren’t able to practice these approaches, be kind to yourself, rather than shameful. The more self-compassionate you are, the less stressed you will be.
Nadine Kenney Johnstone is the host of the podcast Heart of the Story and a writing coach. She received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago and has taught writing internationally for 15 years. Pulling from her experience as a writing, meditation, and yoga nidra instructor, she leads workshops and retreats.