What makes a food calming? Too often, a client will wave me off when I bring up this topic and say, "Oh, all foods are calming foods. Whenever I'm eating, I feel better." But there's a huge difference between tapping into a food's inherently calming properties and using any food as a kind of emotional anesthesia. That kind of eating may buy you a temporary sense of calm, but it's a quick fix that wears off way too fast. And where does it usually leave you? Weighing more than you'd like and muttering at yourself, "Yuck, how could I have eaten all that?"
Stressful events—and they don't even have to be big, just the daily hassles of life—cause our cortisol levels to rise. Cortisol causes food cravings, and in women those cravings tend to be strongest for carbs, especially sweet foods, according to researchers at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center. The more of them we eat, the worse our mood gets. As if that weren't bad enough, the cortisol then makes more trouble for us, triggering an enzyme in our fat cells (it converts cortisone to more cortisol). Since our visceral fat cells (the ones in our abdomen, packed around our vital organs) have more of these enzymes than the subcutaneous fat cells (the fat on our thighs and butts, for example), stress causes many women to accumulate more belly fat. The more stress, the more this abdominal, or central, obesity occurs. Some research has found that these belly fat cells, which have been linked to a greater risk for heart disease and diabetes, have four times as many cortisol receptors as regular fat cells.
So when I talk about calming foods, I don't mean so-called comfort foods. I mean meals and snacks that will truly soothe and calm you. Whether it's because of the specific nutrients they provide or the steady, reliable source of energy they give you, they'll get you through the day feeling focused, even, and balanced—so you'll have the ability to conquer anything.
I know, these slender stalks are known to make your urine smell funny. But they are high in folate, which is essential for keeping your cool. I like them steamed, then added to salads. I also love them broiled until crisp. Go ahead and eat as many as you'd like. (Enjoy them in new ways with these delicious asparagus recipes.)
These creamy fruits stress-proof your body. Rich in glutathione, a substance that specifically blocks intestinal absorption of certain fats that cause oxidative damage, avocados also contain lutein, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and more folate than any other fruit. A single serving (about one-quarter of an avocado) has plenty of B vitamins, too. Remember, this may technically be a fruit, but I count it as a fat, so use portion control. Thin sliced on sandwiches, it adds a whole new layer of flavor.
Blueberries have some of the highest levels of an antioxidant known as anthocyanin, and they've been linked to all kinds of positive health outcomes, including sharper cognition. But all berries, including strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, are rich in vitamin C, which has been shown to be helpful in combating stress. German researchers tested this by asking 120 people to give a speech, then do hard math problems. Those who had been given vitamin C had lower blood pressure and lower levels of cortisol after the stressfest. Substitute berries for any other fruits on the plan whenever you want. I like to nibble on them frozen, too.
I love all nuts. They're great snacks, and because they are crunchy and a little salty, they cure many cravings. For those trying to lose weight, they're such a potently satisfying combo of protein and fat that it's hard for me not to recommend them at every single meal. (You do have to watch portion size though, since they are high in calories.) Cashews are an especially good source of zinc—a 1-ounce serving has 11 percent of your RDA. Low levels of zinc have been linked to both anxiety and depression. Since our bodies have no way of storing zinc, it's important to get some every day. Trade cashews for other nuts on the plan when you're in the mood. Coarsely chop a handful and toss them into a chicken stir-fry.
This is probably one of the most recommended bedtime soothers around. I've always loved it because the flowers are so pretty, like tiny daisies. But now there's more evidence than ever that chamomile calms. A study from the University of Pennsylvania tested chamomile supplements on 57 participants with generalized anxiety disorder for 8 weeks, and found it led to a significant drop in anxiety symptoms. Of course, I'd much prefer you drink it in tea form—that way, you'll get the warm, wonderfully calming feeling of holding a mug of tea as you sit in a quiet spot before bed. And yes, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, there is some evidence that, in addition to calming nerves, chamomile promotes sleep.
Just pour a cup of boiling water over 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of the dried flowers (you can buy chamomile either loose or in tea bags at health food stores) and steep for 10 minutes. Try having a cup every night: Turn off the TV, the computer, and your phone, and settle down for a peaceful end to the day. It's nice iced, too.
Besides the healthy antioxidants in this treat, which push chocolate to the top of most heart-healthy food lists, it has an undeniable link to mood. A recent study from the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine reports that both women and men eat more chocolate as depressive symptoms increase. Of course, we've all been there, polishing off an entire package of chocolate after a bad day. But there's evidence that, in moderation, chocolate does actually make you feel better.
Dark chocolate, in particular, is known to lower blood pressure, adding to a feeling of calm. It contains more polyphenols and flavonols—two important types of antioxidants—than some fruit juices. You can safely allow yourself dark chocolate as a snack once a week, or as a conscious indulgence, and still stay on track with your weight loss results. I always keep a few squares in my bag.
Like many plants, garlic is jam-packed with powerful antioxidants. These chemicals neutralize free radicals (particles that damage our cells, cause diseases, and encourage aging) and may reduce or even help prevent some of the damage the free radicals cause over time. Among the compounds in garlic is allicin, which has been linked to fending off heart disease, cancer, and even the common cold. Because stress weakens our immune system, we need friends like garlic, which can toughen it back up. As long as you saute it in broth, not oil, you can add it liberally to all the meals on the plan.
Grass-fed beef is not only better for the planet, it's also better for people. It has more antioxidants—including vitamins C and E and beta-carotene—than grain-fed beef, and doesn't have added hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs. And while it's lower in fat overall, it's about two to four times higher in omega-3s. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that healthy volunteers who ate grass-fed meat increased their blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and decreased their levels of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. These changes have been linked with a lower risk of a host of disorders, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, depression, and inflammatory disease. Grass-fed beef is pricey but well worth the occasional splurge. (If you're really gung-ho on the concept, check out local sources for "cowpooling," where you go in with others on shares of grass-fed cattle.)
Talk about comfort food! A complex carbohydrate, oatmeal causes your brain to produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical. Not only does serotonin have antioxidant properties, it also creates a soothing feeling that helps overcome stress. Studies have shown that kids who eat oatmeal for breakfast stay sharper throughout the morning. And beta-glucan, the type of soluble fiber found in oatmeal, has been shown to promote greater satiety scores than other whole grains. Make a batch of the steel-cut variety on the weekend, store it in the fridge, and microwave it on busy mornings. It keeps beautifully, and in fact, that's how restaurants often prepare it.
The sweet flavor of walnuts is so pleasant, and it's nice to know they've been proven to provide a bit of a cognitive edge. They contain alpha-linolenic acid, an essential omega-3 fatty acid, and other polyphenols that have been shown to help prevent memory loss. Researchers at Tufts University found that animals that ingested walnuts even reversed some signs of brain aging. To bring out their flavor, I toast them for 10 minutes, then chop them and add them to salads.