Wednesday, June 29, 2022

UTSA researcher offers nutrition tips to help stress management

UTSA researcher offers nutrition tips to help stress management

AUGUST 20, 2021 — Sarah Ullevig, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics in the UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy, is studying the impact of COVID-19, the science of nutrition and the ever-evolving knowledge of how food can affect our bodies.

Ullevig’s research interests include two broad areas of nutrition-focused research: nutrition in healthy aging and the relationship between nutrition, inflammation and oxidative stress in nutrition-related diseases. Her research involves studying health issues impacting older adults, including malnutrition, food security, nutritional adequacy, age-related muscle loss and dietary supplement use.

Oxidative research is the disturbance in the balance between the production of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) and antioxidant defenses. This type of stress discusses its relation to its possible role in the production of tissue damage in diabetes.

UTSA Today connected with Ullevig this week to learn more about her research and how people can manage stress through nutrition.

How has your research shifted in light of the pandemic?

I am interested in bridging the digital divide that was accentuated during the COVID-19 pandemic so that at-risk older adult populations can access nutrition and physical activity information and connect with others virtually.

How can nutrition help with stress management?

Connections have been made between certain nutrients that may help manage stress, but the strongest evidence supports eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet.

A well-balanced diet will have adequate fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein sources, and low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives that can provide us with vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants to aid in stress management. It is important to acknowledge that stress can affect our food choices.

There is evidence to support that stress can increase the selection of less nutritious foods that are higher in fat and sugar that could potentially lead to weight gain.

How can be sure we are eating right during the pandemic?

It may be difficult to maintain healthy eating habits during stressful times, especially when stress is prolonged, like in this pandemic. Some tips that can help us all make good choices during stressful times:

  • Make small changes to include healthy foods in your diet. No need to change everything about your diet; start small and make achievable goals. Healthy foods to focus on include fruits and vegetables of all kinds. The best ones are those you enjoy. Whole grains are another healthy choice. Look for “100% whole grain” on the product packaging. Include lean proteins such as fish, poultry, lean beef, beans and other legumes. Soy and low-fat dairy are also great options.

  • Limit foods high in fat, sodium, alcohol and caffeine. Allow yourself foods you enjoy, but limit serving sizes to moderate intake.

  • Plan ahead to make healthy eating easier. I find that planning can help immensely to increase the likelihood of eating healthy foods. Start with making a menu for the week to plan what you will have for meals and snacks. I find that planning for at least a week at a time will help prepare you for what you will eat that week and you will have all the food needed to make healthy choices. Some tips for planning for the week: start planning with foods and meals you cook and eat already. No need to plan gourmet meals you have never cooked before and I suggest adding experimental meals slowly into your menu. Plan for non-healthy meals and snacks. For example, I know my family will eat out more on the weekend and I plan for that.

  • Use healthy ready-to-eat or low preparation options to save time. I sometimes don’t have much time to spend cooking and I use options that can save time. Grocery store meal kits or meal kit services, for example, are great to ensure you have all the ingredients for easy-to-make healthy meals. Ready to eat meals can be great options when you don’t have much time and have limited access to cooking equipment. These can be frozen or refrigerated meals. Some of my favorites are ready-made salads (refrigerator section), healthy burritos packed full of vegetables and whole grains (frozen), crustless quiches or veggie cakes (frozen), and bowls that have whole grains, beans and vegetables (refrigerator or frozen section). I usually pair these meals with fruit and yogurt to make a well-rounded meal that will include protein, vegetable, starch, fruit and dairy.

  • Prepare meals and snacks ahead of time. During stressful and hectic times in my life, I prepare all of my meals for the week on the weekend. This way I do not have to stress about making meals during the week when I am the busiest. I also enlist my family to help in preparing meals and snacks.

  • Find ways to manage stress that don’t include food. We use food as a comfort during stressful times. Acknowledging when you are stressed and using a non-food outlet can help. Some non-food stress management tools that may help are exercise, meditation, spending time doing things you enjoy, talking to friends and family and many more. Find the best ones for you. Do not hesitate to seek professional help if stress is impacting your life negatively.

  • Be kind to yourself and celebrate small victories. Knowing that stress can affect the amount and types of food we eat, acknowledge that no one eats perfectly all the time and sometimes we can’t plan for all of life’s stressors. Food with sugar and fat taste good and we can enjoy them. If your plan to eat healthy didn’t work one day, evaluate what adjustments could be done the next day. Tomorrow is another day to try and experiment what works for you. Many times, no adjustments are needed except to acknowledge a stressful day.

⇒ Read more about nutrition and dietetics at UTSA.

How has your personal journey influenced your work?

I enjoyed working with older adults in my career as a registered dietitian in the community and continued working with this population as a researcher at UTSA.

I love learning about the molecular level of nutrition and how it affects the body. I also love to eat food and do not like when misinformation is spread about nutrition that makes people fearful to eat certain foods. I hope that I impart a respect for the science of nutrition, emphasize the importance of nutrition in healthy aging and never instill fear of eating foods to the future dietitians I teach at UTSA.

Ingrid Wright

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