Dave Shaw 's Opinion

NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave Shaw: How to reduce stress, eat well and be healthy

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Cutting your stress and improving what you eat is important for your overall well-being. Photo / Thinkstock
Cutting your stress and improving what you eat is important for your overall well-being. Photo / Thinkstock

In our high speed, commuting life, we don't often think about food. Labour saving devices like cars and computers have actually reduced our spare time, rather than created more. The consequence of it all is stress. And stress has much more importance on your health than you may think.

One of the main predictors of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease is, in fact, stress. It matters.

Stress can form from losing a job, family dynamics or simply trying to maintain good health. And it makes sense - evolutionary, behaviourally and biologically - that when we do feel we're overwhelmed, we reach for those comfort foods. The very foods that are energy dense with layerings of salt, sugar and fat.

They give our brain the reward it desperately craves and primes us for the next assault. Realistically, though, this is a craving that is a borderline addiction and for an assault that will never come.

How we feel also changes the way our body is hardwired. Our bodies release more of the stress hormone, cortisol. Evidence suggests that chronically high levels of cortisol may cause fat to accumulate around the middle and make weight more difficult to lose, as well as placing you at risk of further health problems down the road.

It's not as simple as being prescribed a chill pill. The interaction of behaviour, biology, genetics and the food environment has created a beast to be reckoned with. But it can be as simple as bringing our attention to what is happening, noticing that when we are stressed, we tend to choose those highly palatable foods.

So here are my tips you can do to manage your stress levels, improve what you eat and vitalise your health.

Read Dan Buettner's The Blue Zones

National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner looks at seven of the longest living populations around the world and cleverly explains how these people live, socialise, exercise and eat. From life lessons to simple cooking techniques, what you learn throughout these pages could change your life.

Practice Mindful Eating

It's about paying attention to the moment and eating according to hunger, not emotion. When we are more in tune with our physical and emotional state, we are a better judge of what and how much we should be putting on our plate. By doing this, dining becomes a conscious experience, rather than a habit.

Eat a diet, but don't diet

We all eat a diet, but some people prefer to follow a diet per se. A strict set of dietary rules and regulations can be helpful, but it's not necessary. Unfortunately, though, many of our default diets are built on the very foods that are known to be bad for us - ultra-processed foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt. These are the foods we eat every day, without thinking. So let's start thinking by making a small step towards a healthy diet with these rules.

Don't rely simply on willpower

Willpower alone is overrated. You're essentially setting yourself up for failure if you expect to do everything by yourself. This drains your energy and creates a stressful life. So let go of any unnecessary responsibility by creating a lifestyle and environment that will support you to reach your goals.

Learn how to manage your stress

Eating is not a stress management technique, though many of us do it. It's important to change our relationship with food. We are the ones with the power to make ourselves feel better, not a Snickers bar. Exercising, socialising, reading, yoga, meditation and cooking for others are all ways to calm our feelings and return to our happy place. Maybe it's time to try something new.

Get some sleep and relax

Getting a good night sleep changes everything for the better, especially our food choices. We are better able to deal with the challenges of the day and have more energy to become who we want to be. It's like everything is in a state of flow. So make time for yourself, chill out and sleep in.

Dave Shaw

NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave works in public health and alongside some of New Zealand’s top athletes. Whether it's for vitality, performance, identity or spirituality, Dave loves the way food brings people together. He believes that no one diet is the cure for our growing rates of chronic disease, but a diet based on wholefoods is the perfect start. Always keeping up-to-date with current evidence and food trends, Dave is a relentless researcher for how we should eat and likes to challenge what we may think about nutrition.

Read more by Dave Shaw

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