What to eat to reduce stress and to increase your energy

Did you know that what you eat has the potential to not only help you reduce stress but also increase your energy? That’s right. Because food is fuel, and what we decide to eat has a direct effect on our concentration and mood. And I’m not talking about the instant boost you get from a quick cup of coffee or a sugary snack!

In fact, if you’ve come across my content before – here on my website, on social media, or at one of my talks – you’ll know I talk about what I call the Optimum Fuel Formula. This might sound ominous and complicated, but it’s really simple. And it’s all about having balanced meals across the day that are made of:

  • Protein.
  • Healthy fats.
  • And complex carbohydrates.

Balancing the nutrients in your meals in this way helps you stabilise your blood-sugar levels. This, in turn, can help you reduce stress and maintain your energy levels, so you wave goodbye to those unpleasant ups and downs and sudden cravings we can sometimes feel during the day when we don’t make the best choices for optimal wellbeing. 

I talk about this in a bit more detail in my blog post, How to lower stress while hybrid working, so feel free to head over there if you’d like more information on that. Or simply email me, and I can send a free copy of my Optimum Fuel Formula pdf.

If you’re new to the concept of balancing your meals and snacks to follow the simple formula above, I’m hoping to give you some inspiration and ideas to help you make better choices around the food you eat so you can reduce stress and increase your energy.

So let’s break this down into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ready?

Savoury breakfast of eggs and avocado on wholemeal bread as food to reduce stress and increase energy

Breakfast ideas 

First thing first, in order to start your day on the right foot it’s important you actually do eat your breakfast. As tempting as it is to skip it and grab something on the way to work or ‘later’, planning enough time in your morning to have a healthy breakfast will set you up for the day and give you that boost you want and need to get going in the right way.

When it comes to choices, savoury is always best. For example, you could opt for:

  • Spinach and eggs.
  • Smoked salmon on wholegrain bread.
  • Avocado and egg on wholemeal bread.
  • Or even have the leftovers from the night before.

If you find you’re pressed for time in the morning (and aren’t we all, between our own routines and often having to get the kids ready for school too?) it might be helpful to plan ahead and prep the night before. Just have a quick think about what you’re going to have and stick a post-it on the fridge or make a note on your phone as a reminder or maybe even prep some overnight oats you can have in the morning.

To coffee or not to coffee?

If you like your coffee in the morning, then make sure you don’t drink it on an empty stomach. Why? Because caffeine stimulates cortisol release. Cortisol is one of our stress hormones, and it’s what wakes us up every morning (helpful!). But, if cortisol is already up and you pour in a mug of coffee, you effectively spike too high and can start to feel physically stressed. If you really can’t function without coffee first thing, the way to mitigate this unpleasant side effect is to add some fat to it, like butter or double cream.

But remember that while caffeine might give you that boost you need there and then, a ‘crash’ will always follow. And you’ll find yourself wanting to reach for another cup of coffee or another stimulant (like tea or chocolate) only a couple of hours later. If you follow the Optimal Fuel Formula, on the other hand, you’ll feel full and satisfied for longer, and you’re more likely to make better choices when the time of your next meal comes along. Try it – it works!

Lunch ideas

When it comes to lunch, again, forward planning will give you the chance to make better choices instead of relying on what you can find at the last minute. The easiest way to ensure you have a good, balanced lunch that follows the principles of the Optimal Fuel Formula is to make a little extra the night before and bring your leftovers in from home. I find that food often tastes even better the next day, don’t you? Plus, batch cooking in advance (either the night before or one afternoon over the weekend) means you’ll be saving time and money during the week.

And if you’re worried about eating the same thing two days in a row, that won’t be a problem for your health. It’s best to think about the nutritional variety of your food across your whole week, rather than on a daily basis. So two consecutive identical meals won’t hurt.

Healthy lunch bowl with brown rice, chicken, beans and lots of green vegetables as an example of foods that reduce stress and increase energy.

Eating out

If you’re eating out, remember to make choices that are as close as possible to the Optimal Fuel Formula. I’d say try to avoid the tempting but highly processed and full of unhealthy saturated fat options like McDonald’s or KFC. Steer clear of carb-heavy meals too, and, instead, opt for something more balanced.

For example:

  • Pret do a lovely smoked salmon protein box. Humous and falafel are also great choices.
  • Leon restaurants have brown rice and chicken boxes.
  • Or if you like sushi, salmon or tuna and avocado rolls are yummy and a well-balanced choice.

Of course, it’s okay if not every meal is perfectly balanced – you don’t want your choice of food to become a source of stress. We’re trying to reduce stress here after all, aren’t we? So I like to follow the 80/20 rule – eat well 80% of the time and let yourself ‘off the hook’ the remaining 20%.

Dinner ideas

Again, when it comes to dinner ideas, think about things that are quick and simple to make. After a busy day, you don’t want to spend hours and hours in the kitchen to produce gourmet meals and 3-course dinners! (Not unless that’s your thing!)

I find BBC Good Food has plenty of great ideas for quick and healthy 30-minute meals. Madeleine Shaw also has a range of helpful recipes that are delicious, healthy and easy to make.

As much as you can, try and stick to the Optimum Fuel Formula. If you’ve cooked some chicken or fish (protein), add an extra leafy veg (complex carbohydrates) and some olives (healthy fats). Instead of white rice or pasta, opt for courgetti (spiralised courgettes) or cauliflower ‘rice’.

And to reduce the stress and minimise time in the kitchen, batch cook extra food at once or, if you can, share cooking responsibilities with another member of the family. If that’s not possible, pick a night in the week (perhaps when you’re the busiest or the most tired) and get a takeaway. Remember that 80/20 rule – it doesn’t have to be perfect all the time!

And what about snacks to reduce stress and increase energy?

Hang on a second. Am I saying that you should always stick to three meals a day, follow the Optimal Fuel Formula 80% of the time, and you’ll never feel peckish and reach for the biscuits ever again?

Well, not quite.

But I’ve got some actual good news here. The more you’re fuelling well (ie. eating breakfast and following the Optimum Fuel Formula for every meal), the less you’ll feel the need to snack or raid the fridge during the day.

But old habits are hard to die. And often snacking isn’t about being hungry at all! So many other factors come into play, like the need for a break from what we’re doing, or feeling bored or worried about something. If you want more information or ideas on how to break your snack habit, head over to my blog post How to tackle snacking when you’re Working From Home.

I hope this blog post gave you some ideas on how to choose balanced meals that will help you reduce stress and increase energy. If you’re looking for more tips on sustainable, not stressful health and fitness, you can connect with me on Instagram or subscribe to my YouTube channel – Workout with B.

Bianca x