Performance Nutrition: Is Stress Ruining Your Diet?

I recently received an email from a colleague who happens to be the CEO of a wellness consulting firm, a certified strength and conditioning coach, and a competitive runner. He said, “Lately my eating seems like it is all over the place. I feel out of control.” He went on to ask if I could recommend a diet or a cookbook to help him. He also added that he had taken time off for family health problems, so he was behind at work and not running as much.

Stress is in plentiful supply these days. And unfortunately, it can’t be fixed with a new cookbook. We often underestimate the emotional component that revs up our stress hormones. Stress burns us out. We feel tired and reach for the sugary treats. Or we opt for a chair and a few drinks instead of our usual exercise class.

Let’s take a look at what can be done to stay on track with a high quality diet when the chaos of life hits hard.

Stress and the Sugar Crave

The latest World Health Organization statistics tell us that obesity is increasing all over the world at an alarming rate. And adults aren’t the only ones affected. By the year 2012, five percent of children (ages 5-13) in European countries will be overweight or obese. In the United States, that number is predicted to be eight times higher at 40 percent.

The ability to naturally self-regulate food intake appears to be intact only up to the age of two or three. After that, exposure to hedonistic effects such as pleasant taste and emotional comfort can override physiologic signals of hunger and fullness. Over time, the neurochemical link from stomach to brain becomes hardwired to seek food for pleasure — not just energy. Re-learning to pay attention to natural hunger cues is essential if we are to survive in an environment of continuous exposure to high-fat, high-sugar, and salty foods.

Am I hungry? Am I anxious? Is this food what my muscles need? Asking these key questions can decrease a reactive style of eating that’s not physiologically based.  Eating with awareness means being fully present at the moment — noticing the taste, texture and smell of food. By focusing on eating as an activity — and only eating — we are more likely to notice cues from our body telling us when we have had enough.

Identify Nutrition Motivators: What Do I Need to Run Better?

What can make you run faster and feel less fatigue without side effects? Meal planning. Yes, it takes some time investment up front, but the payoff is huge. You’ll feel better and have less fatigue. For the most effective plan, think in terms of an entire week, not meal by meal. Laying out a weekly meal guide allows you to fit snacks and meals around your workout schedule to maximize their benefit. For example, a morning run may call for a carbohydrate-rich snack mid-morning, whereas a workout in the afternoon requires a low-fiber, high-carbohydrate snack that can quickly boost blood sugar but is easy on the stomach. Being prepared with meals and snacks, and having the foods on hand eliminates random grazing, vending machine raids, and fast food meals.

Start your menu plan by deciding on what you will eat for breakfast. Have one or two combinations that you can simply rotate during the week. Then move on to lunch and supper. First identify what the protein source will be, and then what vegetable will be served with it. Decide ahead of time if fruit will be used as a snack, or perhaps dessert. Aim for two low-fat dairy choices per day to help meet calcium needs, as well as protein.

Writing a menu provides extra commitment to eating a quality diet. Shop from a list, post the menu on your refrigerator, and enjoy the process of eating healthfully.

Nutrients, Stress and Fatigue

For many of us, running on adrenaline and motoring through the day on autopilot is a way of life. Although it may take years, a poor diet eventually causes nutrient reserves in the body to become depleted.

Unfortunately, it is not until reserves are very low that a simple blood test becomes an accurate reflection of low levels for many nutrients. For example, potassium and magnesium are minerals stored primarily within body cells. Because these minerals are essential to maintain muscle contraction, cells release these minerals when blood levels are low. Although a laboratory test may show no deficiency, it does not reflect suboptimal levels within the cells — only extreme depletion.

Depending on laboratory tests to ensure nutrient adequacy is neither practical nor very accurate unless it is done in a research setting. So, what can you do to make sure you’re not deficient?

Research has shown that there are certain diet patterns that make it more likely a nutrient deficiency will develop. These include vegan diets, low-calorie diets, and diets that omit a food group (such as dairy or meat). Careful planning is essential if restrictive diets are followed for a long time period.

Many athletes enjoy having a beer or glass of wine as part of their food intake. Alcohol is often recommended for its cardiovascular benefit. But if the alcohol is replacing other nutrient-rich foods, it will tax stores of B vitamins (particularly thiamine). Excessive alcohol intake will deplete many nutrients, particularly if regular meals are skipped and use is chronic.

No one is immune from developing nutrient deficiencies in the face of illness, particularly when experiencing high nutrient losses from diarrhea or vomiting.  Unfortunately, stress increases our susceptibility to illness, which is then compounded by nutrient losses. In this situation, a supplement may prove beneficial under the guidance of a health care professional.

Nutrition Tip Performance Benefit
 Journaling Identifies patternsReinforces your mission/goals
 Protein at every meal Aids in satietyMuscle maintenance
 3-5 rule of meal pattern – at least 3 hours between meals and no longer than 5 Minimizes bingingMinimizes overgrazing
 Slow down & remove distraction Aids in eating mindfully

Allows natural satiety signals to be effective

 Limit alcohol use Reduces B-vitamin depletion (needed for energy metabolism)
 Practice response flexibility – breathe, center, then reassess Decreases reactive, emotional eating

Improves awareness

 Adequate calcium intake Prevents osteoporosis

May aid in weight loss/maintenance

Practice recovery eating after exercise High-quality protein plus carbohydrate, yogurt, whey protein with fruit, chocolate milk, apple with cottage cheese


About the Author

Donna Marlor, MA, RD, CSSD

Donna Marlor is a registered dietitian (RD) specializing in nutrition for endurance exercise and weight management. She offers motivational coaching and behavioral skills training to change eating patterns. Donna has a successful private practice as a consultant to the U.S. Olympic Education Center in Marquette, MI, and works with many individual athletes from novice to elite. A former collegiate alpine and cross country racer, Donna has a personal interest in sports. She enjoys masters level competition in cross country skiing and running, as well as spending time with her family and chocolate lab on many outdoor adventures in Upper MI. Donna can be reached at or (906) 360-4069.