What’s the #1 thing to ditch from your diet?
Go ahead. Take a guess!
Is it gluten? (Surely, since it damages the gut lining.)
How about sugar? (Must be it. It’s the one thing we know we should limit.)
Dairy? (Inflammatory for so many folks.)
Legumes? (Lots of carbs with less nutrition.)
Alcohol? (All the calories with none of the stuff that makes us healthier.)
While I’d argue that the food listed should be avoided from your nutritional approach on a daily basis, there’s one that’s worse. The #1 thing to ditch from your diet right now is….
Stress over food choices. Stress over being food-perfect. Stress over every little thing that goes onto your plate. (Let’s all take a deep breath, shall we?)
Recently, I wrote an article called Paleo On A Budget and couldn’t get over how many people expressed RELIEF after reading it. RELIEF! It was like they were absolved of the need to be perfect or live outside their means. Food choices are literally stressing people out. Who really wants to live that way? Of course, if you absolutely cannot eat a certain food for physical reasons or you’re doing a 30-day clean-eating plan such as Whole30, the point is to buckle down in certain areas so you can learn about yourself. But that’s not a way to live long-term, especially when you feel stressed as a result. Before we talk about how to shift your perspective to a healthier one, let’s investigate a bit more about stress.
When You Think Stress, Think Cortisol
Hormones carry chemical messages throughout your body, and their balance is critical. One of these, cortisol, is often nicknamed the stress hormone. And while you often hear about it in a negative context—as in being too high, it’s a hormone important to a normally functioning body. You want it to work correctly at the right time.
What’s cortisol responsible for? It’s released by the adrenal glands—they sit on top of our kidneys—in response to stress of the physical AND mental variety. When you experience something stressful, whether it’s a car wreck, a fight with your spouse or a really hard training session, cortisol increases in response. It’s not responsible for the immediate “my heart is racing” feeling adrenalin produces. Rather, it’s a response that takes minutes to kick in. Normally, these temporary bumps in cortisol help make small amounts of glucose (through a process called gluconeogenesis), ramp up your immune system and help you focus mentally. Why? If there’s truly a dangerous or threatening situation present, your body needs to mobilize to deal with it.
[Aside: Also, cortisol levels are closely tied to our 24-hour circadian rhythm. Normally, it ramps up as morning approaches and reaches its peak, which helps us feel alert and awake. Then it tapers off mid-morning and should be at its lowest in the evening as melatonin—the hormone that helps put us to sleep—is at its peak.]
When It All Goes Wrong
Our bodies are designed to deal with an acute stressful event and then to come down from that heightened state. Get stressed. Relax. Repeat. Here’s the problem: In our modern lives, we are constantly under stress, both real and perceived, physical and mental. We aren’t designed to endure stressful events with such frequency—and here’s the kicker—without letting ourselves decompress.
When cortisol is elevated long-term (chronically), a burden is placed on the adrenal glands, and all sorts of undesirable conditions result. (Think decreased bone density, accumulation of belly fat and dysregulated thyroid to name a few.) This chronic elevation of cortisol is also what gives you that “tired but wired” feeling at night when you can’t wind down.
The Diet Connection
Not only can food choices / behaviors affect cortisol levels—intermittent fasting and very low carb approaches are just two examples—the simple act of how we THINK about food can be a form of psychological stress. If you’re worrying about what you eat (and that stress occurs often), you’re creating a completely unnecessary cortisol response.
“But, Is [Insert Food Here] Paleo?”
It’s a really common question readers ask, and one that causes stress if it’s something folks focus on as they live a Paleo lifestyle. After all, Paleo’s not meant to be a quick fix diet with rules like, “Drink X ounces of water with X tablespoons of lemon juice and X teaspoons of maple syrup.” (By the way, that diet is dumb.) You want a general Paleo framework to figure out how to navigate your life and help improve your health and well-being. I get that. But stressing out about whether every morsel of food that passes your lips is Paleo really sucks. Please hear me clearly: I want you to make the best possible choices long-term and select foods that are whole and nutrient-dense on a daily basis for optimal results. What I don’t want you to do is to stress out that you heard balsamic vinegar isn’t Paleo so now you worry every time you put it on your salad.
What About Other Types of Food Stress?
Can’t afford grass-fed meat so you eat lean cuts of conventionally raised meat instead? That’s fine. Can’t shell out for pastured eggs so you eat regular eggs? Good. I’d rather have you eat them for the protein than relying on legumes as a protein source. Do the best you can with what you eat based on what you can reasonably afford. Stressing out because the highest-budget foods are out of reach is not contributing positively to your health. More on budget here.
If you come from a background of traditional dieting—you know, that thing of where you’ve been on a diet for most of your adult life—worrying about the number of calories you’re eating or the amount of fat on your plate (oh, the horror!) is definitely a form of stress. If you’re looking and feeling better with Paleo, stop obsessing about every bite that goes into your mouth. Take all that energy and pour it into something positive. Your life will improve tremendously. (I speak from personal experience on that one.)
Set Yourself Straight
Look yourself in the mirror and ask if the way you’re managing your nutrition is causing you stress. If you’re trying to micromanage it to the point that eating feels stressful, there’s a good chance you need to change your approach. Yes, be aware and do your best daily. Yes, prioritize good food choices. Yes, check yourself when suboptimal food choices outweigh the optimal ones. But when you feel such a sense of perfectionism that you’re unable to do Paleo in a more healthy, less stressed manner, it’s time to step back and reassess.
When what to eat causes you stress, it can’t possibly help you support the best possible health.