Eating a well-balanced diet

Your mineral and trace element intake should also be adequate. Although a well-balanced diet should contain essential nutrients in the correct proportions, look particularly at your intake of calcium (good food sources are dairy produce and spinach), magnesium (nuts, cereal grains and fish), iron (red meat and offal, green leafy vegetables and wholegrain cereals), zinc (bran, meat and dairy produce), manganese (wholegrain cereals, nuts and avocado pear), selenium (meat, dairy produce, wholegrain cereals) and chromium (wholegrain cereals, brewer’s yeast and cheese). All these minerals are involved in the stress response and deficiencies caused by their depletion during periods of stress can lead to poor body functioning and ill health.

This is not to say that you should increase your food intake when under stress. Rather, by eating a balanced diet in the first place, you ensure that your body is prepared to deal with increased pressure when the need arises. Similarly, protein levels can decrease during periods of stress; an action of cortisol is to mobilize body proteins for energy. So attention should be given to a balanced protein intake during periods of prolonged stress. This is because when we feel distress we often do not feel like food, at the very time we should be taking extra care about eating properly.

It is not advisable to take megadoses of vitamin or mineral supplements except under medical supervision. Subjected to excessive doses, the body can become saturated with the vitamin or mineral and this may hinder or prevent vital body functions. Taking supplements according to Recommended Daily Allowances will do no harm (RDAs are usually shown on the label of the container). Refer to foodstandards website, page 211.

Increased sweating during the stress response can lead to dehydration. Drinking one or two pints of water each day will help prevent this and stop the blood from thickening too much. Thick blood clots more easily.

As well as taking the above precautions, it makes sense to eat a balanced diet; that is, a diet which has both the right number of calories to provide sufficient energy and the right proportions of all essential nutrients. Such a diet comprises about 10-15 per cent protein, 30-35 per cent fat (made up of half saturated and half unsaturated, that is polyunsaturated and monounsaturated), 50-60 per cent carbohydrate and adequate vitamins, minerals and water.

For the average person this may mean:

cutting down on fat intake (particularly saturated fats -these are mainly animal fats)

increasing the amount of complex carbohydrate eaten to increase fibre intake (wholegrain cereals, wholemeal, bran, pulses, nuts and seeds) and

eating more fruit and vegetables, preferably fresh or frozen, not tinned.

Eating sensibly is not just a question of eating the right amounts of food but also adopting a sensible eating pattern. It is very easy to miss meals when under pressure. Breakfast can become one cup of coffee and lunch a quick sandwich as you work. On the other hand, life can become one continuous meal when under stress.

Let your body tell you when to eat. Keeping to the traditional three meals a day’ rule is not always necessary. It is often better to eat smaller, more frequent meals spaced throughout the day instead of eating one or two very large meals. In this way the digestive system does not work overtime’.

Breakfast is considered by nutritionists to be the most important meal of the day – it gets us off to a good start. Skipping breakfast leads to mid-morning tiredness, irritability, depression, confusion and an inability to concentrate. Ideally, breakfast should contain unrefined carbohydrates, protein and some fat for example porridge, low-fat yogurt, low-fat sausages or fresh fruit. This provides a steady level of blood sugar throughout the morning. Lunch should be a top-up meal and the evening meal the lightest of the day. It is better to eat your evening meal early because the digestive processes may cause sleeplessness. Eating a light evening meal will give your digestive system a rest overnight.

The type of foods we eat can also affect our mental activities. What we eat as well as when we eat can affect our memory and ability to concentrate. Meals excessively high in carbohydrates and low in protein make it less easy for people, particularly those over 40 years old, to concentrate and deal with mental tasks.

Excessive caffeine consumption (about 1000 milligrams of caffeine each day, equivalent to six cups of coffee) is considered harmful. Caffeine stimulates the nervous system and production of the catecholamines, particularly noradrenaline. It makes sense not to produce more noradrenaline than you need for the activities you are undertaking. Taking an excessive amount of caffeine is like being in a state of high arousal with your stress reaction operating at full stretch.

Caffeine, through the effects of noradrenaline, increases alertness and performance, but many people find that too much of it during the late evening can lead to sleep disturbances. High caffeine consumers may be addicted to the stimulating effect and pleasant feeling induced by noradrenaline.

Caffeine increases heart rate. Add this effect to the increased heart rate caused by the catecholamines released during stress response activation and you can end up with problems. Such increases in heart rate lead to increased heart workload and can be a danger for those with coronary heart disease. More seriously, caffeine can stimulate the heart to beat irregularly and this can lead to fatal rhythms.

Caffeine also stimulates the production of acid by the stomach. This can cause heartburn and indigestion, and aggravate ulcers. Since the stomach reduces its activity during the stress response, caffeine taken at this time will stay in the stomach longer and have more time to exert its potentially harmful effect. Other digestive tract problems such as colitis and piles can also be aggravated by caffeine.

There is also evidence suggesting that high caffeine intake can lead to increased blood cholesterol through the action of noradrenaline. Four cups of caffeinated coffee can increase cholesterol in the blood by 5 per cent and ten cups by around 12 per cent. Such increases, added to the rise in cholesterol during periods of stress, as well as that obtained from the diet, may elevate blood cholesterol to potentially harmful levels.

So try to avoid consuming over 500mg of caffeine each day. Switch to decaffeinated coffee and herbal teas and other caffeine-free drinks.

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