Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans stocked their shelves with snack foods, but the shift to stay-at-home work, bulk-buying and increased social stressors have accelerated snack purchasing. While many snacks have a deservedly bad reputation when it comes to nutrition, snacks rich in good fats containing omega-3, fiber and probiotics can actually counteract the very stressors that push us into the pantry.
University of Vermont Medical Center nutrition experts Stephanie Gall, DCN, RD, CD and Leah Pryor have come up with some stress-fighting snacks and recipes to fuel you with helpful antioxidants, protein and anti-inflammatories.
But first, why do we snack?
The Benefit of Snacking
When we’re stressed, our bodies may seek comfort in the form of food. Carbohydrates containing fiber, like oatmeal, boost serotonin – a calming chemical in the brain. Other foods, like bananas or pears, can reduce our stress hormones – cortisol and adrenaline – that can otherwise overstimulate the body and brain.
Stress hormones drive us to crave foods like sugar, which release “feel-good” chemicals in the brain. But those choices provide a negative double-whammy because fast-digesting carbohydrates, like cookies or crackers, also stimulate regions of the brain involved in food cravings and addiction, making you want more. It’s a vicious cycle.
Before you reach for any snack, have a conversation with yourself: Am I hungry? Am I feeling bored or anxious? Am I really just thirsty? If you still need to eat, try choosing one of the foods below that boosts your body’s response to stress, alleviates anxiety and provides a feeling of fullness.
6 Stress-Busting Snacks
- Fruits and veggies high in vitamin C, like citrus or peppers– Studies suggest vitamin C can curb stress hormones and strengthen the immune system. In another study, blood pressure and stress hormones returned to normal more quickly in patients who consumed vitamin C before their stressful task.
- Walnuts – High in omega 3 fats, walnuts can reduce stress hormones and improve depression while helping you feel full. Add small amounts to salads, baked goods, oatmeal and vegetable toppings.
- Raw carrots and celery – Many of us unknowingly hold tension in our facial muscles. The physical act of chewing on crunchy foods can release tension in your jaw and relax your face.
- Peppermint herbal tea – Mint acts as a muscle relaxant and pain reliever. Take a minute to savor a cup of peppermint tea. Inhaling the aroma can improve mood, energy and reduce your appetite for snacking, and calm your stomach.
- Yogurt or kefir – Yogurt is rich in probiotics which suppress your appetite, increase your body’s “feel good” hormones and nourish your gut microbiome. However, yogurt can often contain added sugars, so look for a brand that contains fewer than five grams of sugar per serving.
- Dark chocolate –Dark chocolate contains antioxidants that lower cortisol and improve mood. Try eating 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate (about ¼ cup of chocolate chips) daily for two weeks to reduce your stress.
Stephanie Gall, DCN, RD, CD, is the Clinical Nutrition Manager at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
Quick Stress-Busting Recipes
Coconut, nuts and seeds of all types are rich in fiber; chia seeds pack a omega-3 punch; and blueberries and lemon are high in vitamin C, so relax and enjoy these delicious, stress-reducing snacks.
Blueberry Almond Protein Bars
Yield: 10 bars
1 1/2 cups raw almonds, rough chop
1/2 cup raw pepita seeds (or unsalted sunflower seeds)
2/3 cup puffed rice
2/3 cup dried blueberries
1/2 cup coconut flakes, unsweetened
1 tablespoon chia seeds or hemp seeds
1/3 cup brown rice syrup (or 1/4 cup honey)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Line an 8”x 8” baking dish with parchment paper. Set aside.
2. In a large mixing bowl combine almonds, pepita seeds, puffed rice, dried blueberries, coconut and chia or hemp seeds. Toss and set aside.
3. In a small pan, heat brown rice syrup, salt, cinnamon, turmeric and vanilla over medium-high heat until boiling, stirring occasionally. Let the sauce boil for 4 to 5 minutes.
4. When sauce is ready, pour it evenly over the almond mixture and quickly stir the mixture until it is evenly coated with the sauce. Move fast, it hardens quickly!
5. Quickly transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish and press it firmly into the dish into an even layer.
6. Let bars cool for 30 minutes.
7. Carefully lift the parchment paper from the baking dish and transfer it to a cutting board. Peel the parchment paper away from the bars.
8. Cut the bars into desired shapes and sizes.
9. Place into a sealed container and store at room temperature. The bars will last up to 10 days, or you can freeze them up to three months.
Five-Spice Nuts and Seed Mix
Yield: 2 ½ cups
1 cup unsalted peanuts
¼ cup pepitas
¼ cup sunflower seeds
½ cup macadamia nuts
½ cup Brazil nuts, chopped
2 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 tablespoon Chinese five-spice powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoon coconut oil
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Combine all nuts and seeds in a bowl with Chinese five-spice powder and salt. Warm coconut oil for 10 seconds in a microwave and drizzle over spiced nuts and seeds. Toss well and lay out on a baking sheet.
3. Bake for 10 minutes, check and stir mixture to ensure even browning. Bake for three more minutes or until nut and seeds are golden brown.
Fast Red Lentil Curry Dip
Yield: 2 cups
2 cups water
1 cup red lentils, rinsed
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup olive oil
Juice of one lemon
1 teaspoon curry powder
- Bring water to a boil in a medium sauce pan and add in the red lentils and sea salt. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until water is absorbed and lentils are tender.
- Let cool slightly before transferring to a food processor. Add olive oil lemon juice and curry powder. Process until fully incorporated and smooth. Taste and add additional liquid and sea salt, if necessary, to achieve desired consistency and taste.
- Serve immediately with vegetables, corn chips or as a spread on a toasted sandwich.
Variation: Add a cup of fresh herbs and omit curry. Or, change the type of lentils (yellow, brown or green) and follow the same cooking instructions.
Leah Pryor is the Executive Chef at University of Vermont Medical Center.