Time and time again studies have demonstrated that a nutrient rich diet is essential for health promotion and disease prevention. Eating healthy nowadays however, has become much more complicated. Do we go gluten free? Non GMO? Vegan? What about corn? Organic vs Not? Have you heard of the bulletproof diet? When you start to look into these diets it becomes overwhelming and these trends become confused with the concept of what “healthy eating” is.

This makes “healthy eating” more challenging. How are you supposed to cook with these restrictions while working 40-50 hours per week? How are you supposed to avoid sugar, fat and salt- when these are all the things you crave tremendously when you are stressed?

Most of us find ourselves in this situation and “eating clean” can add to our pre-existing stresses. Given the busy lifestyle we tend to have, how do we implement a healthy diet? In this article we will explore how chronic stress affect us, how a healthy diet offsets the impact of stress, and tips on how to incorporate whole foods into the diet.

Implications of Chronic Stress

We all are affected by stress (physical, mental or emotional) whether we perceive it or not. We have also experienced how chronic stress negatively affects our thoughts, perception and moods. We get stuck in the stress cycle: we’re stressed because of all the work we need to accomplish, we get overwhelmed and our anxiety increases; then our work performance, productivity, general satisfaction and wellbeing decreases, only to fuel more stress (Mckinzie et al., 2006).

stress cycle

When our stress starts to escalate, it becomes harmful to an individual in terms of mental health, physical disease and unhealthy lifestyle/eating practices. For example many studies have demonstrated a direct correlation between stress and the development of mood disorders like anxiety and depression.  Chronic stress has also been linked to immune suppression, disturbed sleep, increased risk of cardiovascular disease and overall inflammation (SCMH, 2003; Knapp et al., 2011; Chida et al., 2008). This is why it is more important that if we live a stressful or busy lifestyle, we have to offset this stress with nourishing behaviours. One way to support ourselves is to implement a healthy wholefoods diet.


A Healthy Diet to Support Our Stress

In times of stress it is important to implement a healthy diet so we can:

  1. Be resilient and handle the stressors that come our way.
  2. Prevent burnout.

Specifically the consumption of fruits and vegetables has been shown to offset the effects of all types of stress by strengthening the immune system, stabilizing moods and reducing blood pressure (Liu et al., 2003). Behavioural studies have demonstrated that high fruit and vegetable intake has been consistently associated with high mental wellbeing (Rooney et al., 2013) and optimism in adults (Blanchflower et al., 2013). There is also a dose dependent response shown between the consumption of fruits and vegetables and mental/physical health (White et al., 2013). Furthermore chronic consumption of fruits and vegetables benefits cognition in healthy adults: specifically global cognitive function and verbal memory (Lamport et al., 2014).

Translation: eating more fruits and vegetables improves your moods, prevents age related decline in memory and improves overall mental capacity. It makes you smarter and more resilient in your day to day activities.

It is important to clarify that “healthy eating” is about consuming whole foods and not necessarily restricting to the boundaries of a diet trend.  Whole foods is “food that has been processed or refined as little as possible and is free from additives or other artificial substances”

When you choose foods in this manner you improve digestion, decrease inflammation, improve general wellbeing and your ability to handle stress.


How to Implement a Whole Foods Diet

Ironically when we are stressed healthy eating may be the last thing we want to do. So here are a few tips to help you incorporate whole foods into your diet on a daily basis.


1. Focus on getting a high vegetable intake

fruits and vegetabelsAim for 5 cups of vegetables per day and any fruit you consume is bonus.

Initially get a baseline of how many cups of vegetables you are currently eating by tracking in a written journal or phone app (ex. fitday.com, my fitness pal). When you get that number increase that amount by 1/2- 1 cup every two weeks until you reach 5 cups per day.

5 cups is a lot, which means you will incorporate vegetables in every meal. Eat them raw, steamed, sautéed, in soup/salad/wraps, or in a smoothie (see spring smoothie recipe). There are many ways you can prepare vegetables.


2. Learn to cook with whole foods: Practice, Practice, and Practice!

The most common challenge working long hours is, there is no time to cook. The reality is there is no short cut to learning how to cook efficiently other than practice. Here’s why:

When we create a meal our brain coordinates visual signals, auditory signals, motor function and fine motor skills. When we first start cooking with new foods it will feel stiff and awkward, but the more we practice the more we trigger the same brain pathways and nerve impulses. Our brain solidifies these pathways in a process called myelination, which speeds up these nerve impulses. More practice –> stronger signalling in the brain= efficient healthy cooking.

By cooking regularly you improve your knife skills, learn what flavours go well together, and learn how to multitask in the kitchen (ex. cleaning dishes while cooking rice, or chopping onions while your pan is heating up). Soon enough you’ll be able to cook something delicious within 15 minutes.

Remember in the initial stages of cooking new foods:

  • You will have to budget some time to account for a learning curve. This learning curve may be steep and overwhelming, but learning curves always plateau.
  • There are two parts to cooking: planning meals and the act of cooking. Set aside time to do both.
  • You may have to eat some pretty bland tasting food (or bad tasting) before you get to anything good.
  • Practice with a friend or partner. The plus side of this is you get to spend quality time with a friend.
  • Freezing leftovers: Pick three days you know you have time to cook (ex. Sunday, Monday, and Thursday). On each day cook more than you would eat and freeze your leftovers in glass-lock containers. Save these portions for the days you just can’t cook (ex. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday).

3. Read your nutrition labels: The less ingredients on your nutrition labels the better.

enough said

4. Know your “go to” restaurants

Give yourself a break every once in a while and eat out.  In Toronto there are so many places to go to and various cuisines to try. Branch out to Thai, Indian, Vegetarian, Mexican, Mediterranean, etc. instead of the standard pub or fast food place.

Certain things to consider are:

  • Make a list of “go to” restaurants that are focused on serving real/whole foods.
  • Restaurant food usually has high fat (butter), high salt, high sugar content and big portions. Plan to eat half the portion and feel full by mindfully eating and chewing your food:
    • Our saliva contains digestive enzymes like linguinal lipase and salivary amylase.  When we chew these enzymes start to breakdown food. This breakdown does two things: (1) stimulates our stomach to release more hydrochloric acid in anticipation of the food coming its way and (2) it signals our brain to release hormones which gives us a sense of how full we are.  By chewing your food 15- 20 times per bite, your brain will be able to process the signals that your stomach receptors send to the brain.  This eating practice allows you to feel how full you are so that you can eat until you are 80% full.
  • Look at your plate and eat in the ratios of 50% vegetables, 25% protein, and 25% starch.
  • Ask for substitutions: many restaurants will now cater to dietary requests due to the prevalence of food allergies.


It is important to understand how a diet rich in whole foods can help support you on a daily basis and in times of stress.  For more information about Naturopathic Medicine or specific health concerns contact Dr. Melissa Lee, ND at 416-322-9980.

Happy Spring Eating!




How to Maintain a Healthy Diet While Working a Busy/Stressful 40 Hour Week
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