How to Eat and Live Better to Beat 'Stress Fractures'

Manage your stress through a healthy diet and exercise.

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In her latest book, "Performance Nutrition for Tackling Stress," registered dietitian and licensed psychotherapist Lisa Dorfman provides practical strategies to help active people nourish themselves in the midst of, or after, a stressful event. Because so many of us can relate to feeling stressed at least some of the time, if not chronically, Dorfman's book is likely to resonate with casual exercisers and athletes alike. It may also encourage those who are relatively inactive to get fit to better manage stress.

I recently spoke with Dorfman – a marathon runner and survivor in more ways than one (she survived a near-death, head-on car crash and lost her home to a hurricane) – about her book. Here are highlights from our conversation. Responses have been edited.

What inspired you to write this book?

When we lost our home to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, not only did my husband and I and our three young children experience trauma and devastation, but I personally and professionally witnessed how our community dealt with and recovered from it. Some forged on, relying on healthy eating, exercise and faith to heal. But others dealt with their stress by drinking or taking drugs.

[Read: Making Sense of the Stats on Binge Drinking.]

Witnessing all of these reactions made me wonder how others with different backgrounds and situations might respond to various stressors. So I asked a few hundred clients – patients of a trauma center I consulted with – and students, family and friends about how they handled stress. Then I analyzed my findings and compared it to stress research and voila, my book was born.

What was your biggest "Aha!" moment while writing your book?

What I learned throughout the process was that those who ate better, exercised and had a solid support system dealt better, healed faster and became stronger when confronted with stressful situations than those who coped in less healthful ways.

[Read: Try One of These Quirky Stress-Busters.]

Can you explain what a "stress fracture" is? And how can people effectively deal with them?

As a sports nutritionist and performance therapist for close to 30 years, I've worked with thousands of athletes – most of whom have experienced some sort of injury like a bruise, pull, sprain, tear or "stress fracture." It eventually dawned on me that all of the stress we deal with in life is analogous to a stress fracture, a small crack in the bone that results from repeated stress to an area.

[Read: Hidden Risks of Chronic Stress.]

The everyday stress that men and women experience regularly, whether financial, familial or personal – dealing with difficult relationships and physical ailments or raising children – can cause hairline fractures on your emotions and soul. If we don't deal with them, they store up inside you until something major like a storm or a sudden death causes them to break free at once.

What I've learned is that it's best to deal with, and heal from, the small stuff by following a grounded and balanced routine that includes a healthy diet and exercise. That guards you from being emotionally blown away when a big stressor like a tsunami hits.

What does your book teach people about eating to beat stress?

The biggest lesson is to be mindful of the 3 "Cs" when dealing and coping with stress:

• Consistency – getting enough calories through meals and snacks to maintain energy levels throughout the day;

• Colors – eating a diet that covers a wide spectrum of colors to ensure you're ingesting a variety of vitamins and minerals; and

• Comfort – finding comfort foods or recipes that provide contentment, cheer and relief and make you feel good down to your soul.

What are the biggest benefits of exercise when it comes to beating stress?

Exercise creates positive stress. Challenging your body and building stamina and strength help you fight and take flight from the daily stress fractures of life. It also creates endorphins. These are opiate-like compounds that act as neurotransmitters – brain messengers that relax us or help us "get in the zone."

Research suggests that people report they're more calm after 20 to 30 minutes of exercise and that the feeling can last for several hours. Exercise also gives us a "time out" to rejuvenate and regroup so we can resume tackling the daily stress of life. In my own life, running connects me to others, teaches me patience and helps me feel like I've mastered something. That confidence translates to other areas of my life including my work and raising my children.

[Read: Work, Life and the Attempt to Do it All.]

Any closing advice for people to help them better deal with life stressors?

I encourage people to look around and see who copes with stress best. Ask them what they do, and pick some of their healthy habits to try the next time you're stressed. I also recommend listening to your elders. Research on centurions demonstrates that many of the things they do (I outline these in my book) help you live longer and healthier and better manage and recover from stress.

[See: 11 Health Habits That Will Help You Live to 100.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, is the founder and president of Zied Health Communications, LLC, based in New York City. She's an award-winning registered dietitian and author of three books including Nutrition At Your Fingertips. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, Zied inspires others to make more healthful food choices and find enjoyable ways to "move it or lose it" through writing, public speaking, and media appearances. You can connect with her on twitter (@elisazied) and through her new Stressipes forum on her website: www.elisazied.com.