There's a powerful link between food and stress. After studying the effects of diet on mood for 15 years, Judith Wurtman of M.I.T. concludes that a midafternoon snack of a carbohydrate-rich food such as pretzels or popcorn will ward off tension as well as hunger.
Carbohydrates set off a series of biochemical events that produce serotonin, the chemical that controls the brains stress-management system. Serotonin makes us feel calm and in control when events beyond our control threaten us, says Wurtman, a research biochemist and co-author of "The Serotonin Solution."
To trigger serotonins effects, you have to work with your brain, she explains. There's a rhythm to your serotonin level: it's naturally high in the morning, so you don't need a lot of carbohydrates for breakfast. But at 4p.m. and 4a.m., there's a detriment that needs fixing. The effects of serotonin, she says, start 30 minutes after eating and last for three hours.
We've summarized Wurtman's stress-management diet below. Amounts are for women; men might need slightly more calories from fruits and vegetables (stress-neutral foods). Note that the real stress reduction comes with the afternoon snack and dinner, when you'll need it most.
Coordinates: Judith Wurtman, firstname.lastname@example.org; "The Serotonin Solution" (Fawcett Columbine, 1996), $24
|Meal||What to Eat||The Reason||What to Avoid||The Reason|
|Breakfast||1 cup of yogurt topped with 3 TB cereal and 1/2 banana or 1 egg, 1 sausage, 1/2 muffin.||Breakfast is not designed to relieve stress; the goal is to nourish the body with a balance of proteins and carbohydrates.||A carbohydrate-only breakfast like toast or a muffin.||You need protein as well as carbohydrates to stimulate morning activity.|
|Lunch||Turkey sandwich on bagel with lettuce and tomato or grilled chicken fillet with baked potato and salad.||Going heavy on proteins creates chemicals that provide energy.||Carbohydrates like pasta.||Can you really afford that afternoon siesta?|
|Midafternoon snack||1 handful of baked potato chips or pretzels or 1 handful of fat-free candy like Tootsie Rolls, licorice, jelly beans.||Your body is naturally low in serotonin at 4 p.m. and needs to be replenished. Even if you don't feel hungry, give yourself an "emotional snack."||Fruit.||Fructose, the sugar in fruit, is the only carbohydrate that doesn't stimulate serotonin.|
|Dinner||1.5 cups of cooked pasta with 1.5 cups vegetables and 1 oz chicken or 1 baked potato with 1 oz turkey and 1/2 cup of salsa; 1 cup of spinach and 1 cup of strawberries plus 1 glass wine.||Going heavy on carbohydrates will help you to calm down and relax for the evening. Wine, in moderation, can enhance the dinner's calming effect.|| Lots of proteins
(like a whole chicken breast) or fats (like ice cream for dessert).
|Fat and protein will stop serotonin from working its magic.|
A version of this article appeared in the Dec 1996/Jan 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.