Exercise and nutrition can improve mood, relieve stress

December 10, 2003|by LYNN F. LITTLE

During the holiday season some of us find many holiday foods are "comfort" foods. But whether or not food can really boost one's mood - and even relieve psychological stress - depends more on following a recipe of exercise and good nutrition.

During the holidays, you probably need more exercise, because you know you might be eating more. Maybe you want to walk around the mall once before you buy anything.

A recent study showed that people who exercised more frequently (one to four days a week) were less stressed than those who didn't exercise at all. The study also showed no difference in the benefits of exercise for people with a different body mass index (or BMI, a measure that takes into account a person's height and weight). That shows that exercise alone (regardless of body size) is important for handling stress.

There truly is a physiological response in the body to emotional stress, but there is not necessarily a food or a vitamin that will stop it. A lot of people buy stress vitamins and think those are going to help them - but they're not. Instead, nutrition has one part in helping people cope with stress. Some tips that can help are:

  • Get good sleep.

  • Get psychological help (for example, from a counselor; or a self-help activity like yoga).

  • Keep a normal eating schedule.

Foods high in carbohydrates tend to help people relax, perhaps even sleep better. Foods high in protein generally help people stay alert. Alcohol (in small amounts, such as 1-ounce distilled spirits, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer) can be calming, and helps increase appetite.

Comfort foods and kitchen aromas can improve one's mood. Look at comfort food as a psychological treatment, not a nutritional treatment. Studies have shown that people who are ill "feel so much better when they have a comfort food." In addition, the smell of freshly baked bread or cookies also appeals to our senses. Other aroma favorites include potpourri, incense or spices.

It also is important to avoid holiday binge-eating, but if it happens, don't beat up on yourself. Don't feel guilty or binge more or even try to start a diet the next day. Just go on with your normal routine.

Lynn F. Little is family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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