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10 stress-busting foods for the festive season

Four people toasting wine with Christmas hats on

Too much going on this festive season? Dietitian Juliette Kellow reveals the 10 festive foods that will help you dial down the stress, promote calm and even increase feel-good hormones.

Despite all the fun and celebration, the pressures of the festive season are well documented.

We’ve all got extra items on our to-do list – and buying and wrapping gifts, preparing for family gatherings, frequent nights out and a heavier workload leave little downtime. At the same time, money worries, lack of sleep, more booze and poor eating habits put a strain on our physical and/or mental wellbeing.

Last year, a survey revealed 36% of us feel stressed at Christmas, with more than one in 20 saying they feel under extreme pressure.

All the extra focus on food adds to the stress. While one in five of us admits to getting anxious about cooking the Christmas meal, the run-up to the big day isn’t any less stressful. Surviving the supermarket, entertaining guests with different dietary needs, battling with an overstuffed fridge and trying to maintain normal family meals when dealing with

101 other things can leave us weary at the thought of yet more cooking. All we want for Christmas is a massage and hot bath rather than another round in the kitchen.

But while booking a massage and running a bath come highly recommended, taking a deep breath and heading back into the kitchen may help, too. Research shows that what we eat can have an impact on our mood and energy levels and, by stocking our cupboards and fridge with festive foods that contain stress-busting nutrients, you’ll be on your way to a refreshingly relaxed holiday season…

How to eat to fight holiday stress

Eat regularly

Your to-do list may mean many meals get low priority. But skipping them will make your blood sugar levels crash, leaving you tired, hungry, irritable and stressed out.

Don’t rely on caffeine When you’re busy, downing mug after mug of strong coffee to keep you going can put you even more on edge. Caffeine is a stimulant and in large amounts it creates a stress reaction in the body. Too much and you’ll be ready to scream at anyone.

Limit the booze

Alcohol has a dehydrating effect on the body. Symptoms include irritability, tiredness and poor concentration – the perfect ingredients for making us stressed. Not to mention that a hangover can make any situation seem more difficult.

Hold back on sugary foods

Super-sweet snacks like sweets, mince pies or a frosting-laden yule log will send blood sugar levels on a rollercoaster ride. You may feel a massive high initially, but this is quickly followed by a rebound, stress-inducing dip.

Try a daily probiotic

Our digestive system is one of the first parts of the body to exhibit signs of stress, and its routine can be further disrupted by rich festive foods. For example, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is commonly linked to stressful situations (read more in our special IBS section). Studies suggest taking a daily probiotic may help to ease some of the symptoms.

Don’t cut out starchy carbs

These trigger the release of insulin, which helps the amino acid tryptophan enter the brain, where it’s used to make the feelgood chemical serotonin. Choose carbs carefully, though – swap white, processed ones like bagels, regular pasta, cornflakes and white rice for brown, higher-fibre, unprocessed carbs such as wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta, wholegrain cereals, oats and brown rice. These will keep you fuller for longer and even out blood sugar levels, preventing drops that leave you stressed and lacking energy.

10 stress-busting festive foods

Figs

When festive stress reaches its peak (some time around 2pm on Christmas Day, perhaps?), the traditional figgy pudding may come into its own, as figs offer a number of calming nutrients. Dried figs are packed with fibre to help keep us feeling full, and they’re rich in potassium, good intakes of which are important for controlling blood pressure. Figs also provide sleep-inducing magnesium and fatigue-busting iron. They provide vitamin B6, too, which helps to convert tryptophan into serotonin (see Turkey on p20). Indeed, low levels have been linked to depression: one study found elderly women with the lowest intakes of vitamin B6 were 57% more likely to become depressed than those with the highest intakes. It’s an area that needs more research, but it certainly won’t do any harm to eat more B6-rich foods if you could do with a mood lift.

Nutrition tip

Two fresh or dried figs count as one of your 5-a-day.

Try this

Chop dried figs and add to porridge or cereal. For a tasty starter, cut crosses into the top of whole fresh figs, add a little blue or goat’s cheese, then wrap in prosciutto or parma ham and bake until the cheese has melted and the ham has crisped up.

Salmon

Salmon is full of nutrients linked to mental wellbeing. Like turkey (see p20), it contains plenty of protein and serotonin-boosting tryptophan. But it’s also rich in omega-3 fats, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is vital for normal brain function. Indeed, studies suggest omega-3 fats may help to reduce symptoms of anxiety. Salmon is also one of the few foods rich in vitamin D, low levels of which have been linked to depression, although more research is needed to identify whether a deficiency causes depression or being depressed lowers vitamin D. One theory is that vitamin D helps to increase serotonin. A 50g serving of smoked salmon provides 44% of the 10mcg vitamin D Public Health England recommends we should have each day.

Nutrition tips

• Salmon and sprouts (see right) are a perfect partnership for mental alertness. A study found DHA boosts the cognitive effects of B vitamins.
• Smoked fish is high in salt, so watch your salt intake on those days when smoked salmon is on the menu.

Try this

For a festive treat, add smoked salmon to scrambled eggs. Eggs also contain vitamin D, giving you an even bigger hit of this mood-enhancing nutrient.

Nuts

All nuts contain protein and fibre, as well as stress-busting nutrients such as iron and some B vitamins. They also contribute magnesium, which relaxes muscles and prevents an irregular heartbeat. Magnesium deficiency has been linked with sleep problems, too, with studies showing that supplements may improve insomnia, especially in the elderly. Nuts are especially rich in this nutrient – a 30g serving of brazils, for example, provides a third of our daily needs.

Nuts are also beneficial for our digestive system, which often responds negatively to stress.

As well as having fibre, nuts are prebiotics, so they feed the good bacteria in our gut. One study found eating two handfuls (56g) of almonds a day for six weeks improved the growth of beneficial strains of gut bacteria. Another study showed similar results for pistachios.

Nutrition tips

• Nuts are high in calories, so stick with 30g (about a handful). Shells act as a useful reminder of the amount eaten – one study found keeping pistachio shells meant adults consumed fewer, saving them 48kcal.
• Chose unsalted, fresh nuts to limit your salt intake.
• Flavoured varieties such as wasabi, barbecue or chilli are usually just as high in salt as salted nuts, while honey roasted and those with raisins are higher in sugar. A chocolate coating adds calories, fat and sugar!

Try this

Add nuts to salads and stuffing, use to top cereals and porridge, and include on cheeseboards.

Brussels sprouts

Don’t leave these little gems on the side of the plate… Sprouts are full of folate, a B vitamin important for mental wellbeing. It’s indirectly needed to make mood-boosting neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline. Unsurprisingly, numerous studies show folate levels are often low in people who suffer with depression, and that supplements of this vitamin can improve the condition. A serving of eight spouts (one of your 5-a-day) provides 44%
of our daily needs for folate, so enjoy them over Christmas while they’re at their seasonal best.

Nutrition tip

Steam rather than boil sprouts to retain their taste, texture and vitamins. There’s no need to cut a cross into the base – as today’s Brussels are comparatively small, this tradition can leave them overcooked, water-logged and mushy.

Try this

For a tasty festive side dish, parboil sprouts and drain, then fry in a little oil with chestnuts and pancetta until browned. Use sprouts instead of cabbage for a winter coleslaw: finely shred them, then mix with chopped apple and celery, unsalted peanuts and a mix of plain yogurt, light mayo and lemon juice.

Game

Depending on where you are in the world, at Christmas we’re more likely to see roasts such as goose, duck, venison, pheasant etc, on the menu. Like most other meats, game is packed with hunger-busting protein; it’s rich in mood-boosting tryptophan; and most types contain plenty of B vitamins, especially B6 and B12. But, unlike turkey, most game is also a fantastic source of iron. This nutrient is essential for healthy blood and preventing anaemia, which can leave us feeling tired and worn out – not great at this notoriously exhausting time of year. In fact, many of the symptoms of anaemia are similar to those of stress: extreme fatigue, poor memory and concentration, low energy levels, palpitations and disturbed sleep. Lab studies also show stress itself can deplete blood iron levels.

Nutrition tips

• Roasted partridge, pigeon and venison contain the most iron, with 100g meat containing 7.7mg, 7.2mg and 5.1mg, respectively. Compare this to 0.8g per 100g roast turkey and 2mg per 100g roast forerib of beef.
• Goose and duck are fatty meats, but much of the fat is contained in the skin and the layer beneath it, so removing the skin will help to reduce calories and fat. If you’re going to use the meat juices to make gravy, skim off the fat first.

Try this

Combine game with fruit to boost flavour and nutrients. A few to try: venison with blackberries or plums; partridge with apricots or pears; duck with cherries or oranges; goose with apples or cranberries; pheasant with apples or prunes; and grouse with blackberries or quince.

Turkey

Being packed with protein, which helps to keep us fuller for longer, turkey can help keep ‘hanger’ (feeling hungry and angry) at bay. But that’s not the only way turkey works its calming magic. It’s rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which makes serotonin, a feelgood chemical in the brain. This acts as nature’s own tranquiliser, affecting our mood to make us happier and calmer. Indeed, Prozac – commonly prescribed for treating depression and anxiety – works to boost serotonin. Studies also suggest tryptophan supplements may make us less argumentative and more agreeable – a definite plus for preventing festive family fallouts. Turkey is rich in vitamins B6 and B12, too, which are vital for mental wellbeing. Many studies show a link between low levels of these nutrients and depression. For example, in one study, elderly men with the highest vitamin B12 intakes from food were 58% less likely to be depressed than those with the lowest. A large portion of roast turkey (140g) provides 87% of our daily protein needs and around half our requirement for vitamins B6 and B12. Visit the British Turkey website, britishturkey.co.uk, for advice on defrosting and cooking times, and the size of bird you need.

Nutrition tips

Enjoy both the light and dark meat to maximise your nutrient intake – dark meat contains around double the iron, copper and zinc of the breast, while the light meat is richer in potassium and vitamin B3. Skip the skin, however, as this is where most of the fat lurks.

Try this

Store your leftover turkey by removing the meat from the carcass and freezing it in stock or gravy (another good way to use up leftovers) to keep the meat juicy.

Dark chocolate

Even eating chocolate may have a stress-busting effect, according to some research. A study of 30 stressed-out adults found snacking on 40g dark chocolate every day for two weeks reduced their levels of stress hormones. Another small study found that eating 40g dark and milk chocolate daily over two weeks was effective at reducing perceived stress in females. Other studies suggest chocolate may help lower blood pressure. Cocoa contains naturally occurring plant chemicals called polyphenols that increase nitric oxide in the body. This causes blood vessels to relax and widen, improving blood flow and helping to lower blood pressure.

Nutrition tips

• The more cocoa in chocolate, the more polyphenols it contains, so go for dark, bitter chocolate with the most cocoa solids (ideally at least 70 per cent)
• Although research shows chocolate may help to reduce stress, it’s still packed with calories, fat and sugar, so it can lead to unwanted weight gain. Stick to 30g portions and keep wrappers of individual chocolates so you have a visual reminder of how many you’ve eaten.

Try this

For a festive treat, dip dates in dark chocolate on one side and leave to set.

Pomegranate seeds

These jewel-bright seeds are full of vitamin C, which helps to fight tiredness and keeps our immune system strong. A review of studies has also found pomegranate juice may help to lower blood pressure. This may benefit us when we’re feeling less than calm because, although stress itself doesn’t cause a rise in blood pressure, it can lead to behaviours such as smoking or drinking too much that are known to cause hypertension. These blood-pressure-lowering effects are probably due to the fact that pomegranates are rich in flavonoids, which improve the function of blood vessels.

Nutrition tip

Stick to 150ml pomegranate juice, as in juice the natural sugars are more harmful to teeth, and juice doesn’t fill us up as much as whole fruit.

Try this

Combine pomegranate seeds with couscous, leftover turkey, roasted peppers, walnuts, dates, coriander and lemon zest and juice for a tasty salad.

Make a festive fruit salad with pomegranate seeds, clementines, figs and starfruit.

Cheeseboard

Cheese is rich in mood-lifting tryptophan and tops up levels of zinc and iodine, which are vital for normal cognitive function. Most varieties are rich in vitamin B12 and contain vitamin B2, which helps to reduce tiredness. This is useful as anxiety and stress can deplete B vitamins – as can booze. One study showed that even moderate amounts of alcohol – around two units a day for eight weeks – resulted in a 5 per cent decrease in blood levels of vitamin B12 in post-menopausal women. So when enjoying the cheeseboard, go easy with the wine or port.

Nutrition tips

• As well as being packed with nutrients, cheese is high in calories, saturated fat and salt, so keep portions small – around 30g (the size of a small matchbox).
• Pick accompaniments carefully – pickles and chutneys are full of salt, while quince paste has lots of sugar. Instead of bread or cream crackers with butter, choose water biscuits, rye crackers, grapes, dried fruit, nuts and celery.

Try this

Go for cheeseboard choices that are naturally lower in calories and fat, such as camembert, goat’s cheeses, edam and feta.

Oranges and satsumas

Oranges and small citrus fruits such as satsumas, mandarins, tangerines and clementines, are essential for strong immunity. Stress zaps the body of vitamin C, which can weaken our immune system, making us more vulnerable to infections. Vitamin C also helps to combat fatigue and boosts the absorption of iron from plant foods. A lack of iron can leave us weak, exhausted and unable to concentrate, even if we’re getting plenty of sleep, making us even less able to cope with underlying stress. Two medium satsumas provide 91 per cent of our daily vitamin C needs and count as one of your 5+-a-day.

Nutrition tip

For the best iron-boosting effects, eat iron and vitamin C-rich plant foods together – for example, enjoy an orange or satsuma with a handful of nuts, which are high in iron.

Try this

Halve satsumas and pop into the turkey cavity to keep the meat moist while it’s roasting.

First published: Dec 2019

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