When you get on an airplane and the safety message comes over the intercom, what do they tell you is the most important rule when oxygen masks come down? Put your own mask on first before anyone else. If you don’t, it is a lose/lose situation. This is because we cannot take care of anyone else unless we have taken care of ourselves first. Fair enough! In that hypothetical situation it is easy to comply, but what about in our everyday life?

For a lot of us, we put so many things above our own well-being. Work, kids, spouse, other loved ones, and all the other responsibilities that come along with being adults. These are all very important things, don’t get me wrong, but if we don’t take care of ourselves then we are in no shape to give our best to any of these other responsibilities.

It is important to say, “my well-being matters.” It is vital to take time for ourselves and listen to our bodies to figure out what each of us need to be happy and healthy, so we can pursue what it’ll take to make that happen. This is called self-care. Self-care is so much more than just keeping up with our beauty routines; self-care is any activity that we deliberately do to take care of our physical, mental, and emotional health. It is a universal practice that all of us can pursue, no matter our life situation.

You may be thinking that taking time away from responsibilities and giving it to yourself is selfish, but it is actually very SELFLESS. Self-care will put you in a better place to give the best of yourself to whatever your responsibilities are. It will allow you to perform better at work, have more patience and be more attentive with your kids and/or spouse, and perhaps be a better person to strangers.

We all have stress, no matter who we are or where we are in life. Stress is a unifying factor amongst us all. No matter where your stress is coming from, the body responds the same and so should our response back. We are all going through something difficult and some of us might be having a harder time than others. The reason, no matter big or small, doesn’t negate the need for self-care. Self-care is not something only available to people with expendable incomes that can afford to enjoy the spa. Self-care is a deliberate act of taking care of not just our physical health, but our mental and emotional health too.

Those around me right now know the thing that is causing me the most stress is my upcoming wedding. At this moment I am just 20 days away from the big day. My fiancé and I really wanted a casual and intimate destination wedding with only immediate family attending and I thought that planning a wedding with such a small size would be relatively stress free. I thought, “How hard could it be for 20 people?”

Let me just say that planning a wedding is stressful no matter how many people attend, either 20 to 200. I am not by any means a party planner and decided not to hire one either, thinking it wasn’t necessary. Ladies, get a wedding planner, especially if you are having a destination wedding. That is my one piece of wedding advice! In fact, when my sister gets married that will be my wedding present to her. I unknowingly added additional stress to my plate by having a destination wedding. It turns out it is hard to plan something when the location is 4,000 miles and 4 times zones away. There are so many logistical thoughts and plans on my mind that your head would spin.

A couple weeks ago I found myself getting really carried away with the stress and anxiety with the upcoming trip. It was at that point that I reminded myself that I needed to focus on my own self-care. For me, one of the most important parts of self-care involves food and my diet because when I am stressed it is usually the thing that affects me daily and the biggest thing that I can control.

There are certain foods that make the biggest impact on my health and sense of well-being and for me it is making sure I get LOTS of fruits and vegetables. For the last couple weeks during my times of most stress, I have made a smoothie every morning PACKED with fruits and veggies. There are so many great benefits of fruits and vegetables that should not be overlooked.

One of the most inevitable things that happens when we have chronic stress is getting sick. Fruits and veggies are vital for preventing this because vitamins and minerals are the nutrients that help our body fight viruses. In my case, unfortunately I didn’t avoid getting sick, but my nutrient packed smoothies lessened the severity of my cold. I can honestly say that even though I had the typical cold symptoms, I still felt pretty fantastic. I had energy, an extra pep in my step, and had a high sense of well-being. Plus, my cold symptoms went away faster than normal. This would not have happened if I was not getting the adequate amount of vitamins and minerals from my smoothies.

Now, if you want to avoid colds completely you have to get enough vitamins and minerals (and sleep!) weeks before the cold hits. Since we aren’t fortune tellers and don’t know when a cold will happen, it is just as important to keep up with the daily recommendation of fruits and veggies all the time. Women, you need 2 cups of fruits a day and 2 ½ cups of vegetables. Men, you need 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of vegetables.

When I really focus on getting the right amount of fruits and vegetables I feel the effects and benefits quickly, even on day one. One great added benefit besides fighting sickness is blood pressure regulation. Potassium is the mineral responsible for this. It is no secret that during times of stress, our blood pressure increases, both chronically and with acute spikes. Potassium helps regulate these fluctuations, so it is important to eat foods high in the mineral (unless your doctor has told you otherwise!). We all know that bananas are high in potassium, but there are so many other fruits and vegetables that actually have more potassium than bananas; potatoes and sweet potatoes, avocados, spinach, beans (specifically white, black and soy beans) and coconut water (this one is particularly enjoyable in my smoothies).

For the past two weeks here is what I have put in my smoothies:

At least 3 cups of greens (spinach, spring mix, and/or kale) and 2 cups of fruit. I went to the store and bought frozen blueberries, strawberries, mango, pineapple, peaches. I also got fresh apples, pears and bananas. Each day I picked one or two different ingredients and blended them together with the greens. Some of my favorite combinations are apple pear ginger and spinach and pineapple, mango, banana and kale.

I don’t put dairy in these smoothies because I actually prefer the taste without it, but you can! I recommend low-fat vanilla yogurt, low fat milk, or even soy milk would be a good and healthy addition.

I also add in a plant-based protein, right now I am using a plant-based protein powder if you don’t know which one to buy or just don’t want to add that to your grocery bill, silken tofu is a great and inexpensive option and actually blends nicely in the smoothie (you really can’t even tell there is tofu in there!). With certain smoothies, nut butters such as peanut butter, are a delicious option. I like the combination of apple, banana, vanilla yogurt and peanut butter and cinnamon, I call it a “Flying Elvis” (TM pending).

Or you may not even have to worry about adding protein to these smoothies, lately I haven’t been because I have been eating boiled eggs with my breakfast, as long as you are getting your protein from other sources throughout the day.

These smoothies are great and fit into my busy life so easily. It takes 15 minutes max to blend it and I am out the door with my delicious and healthy breakfast on the go. Since my smoothies are packed with fruits and vegetables I get my full daily recommendation for fruit, and almost the full recommendation of veggies. This goes a long way to starting my day off right, because by the time I am done with breakfast I already feel accomplished and now I don’t have to stress about getting my fruits and veggies the rest of the day. It is one less thing to worry about especially if I know I am going to have a busy day running around.

Smoothies work very well for me and I highly recommend trying it, but if smoothies really aren’t your thing or if you are looking for other foods that can help during times of stress here are some other things to try.

  • Sipping warm beverages like tea
    • Creates a calming effect that can lower hormones that trigger stress
    • Slow down and enjoy the beverage and don’t consume anything else so your body can just focus on the warm beverage
    • Make sure you watch how much sugar you add to these beverages, but ultimately these are meant for you to take time to enjoy them.
  • Carbohydrates
    • Increase levels of serotonin which elevate our mood and help us focus
    • Focus on healthier forms of carbohydrates like sweet potatoes and whole grains
    • Whole grains will give you fiber, keep you fuller longer, and regulate digestion. Digestion can become unregulated during times of stress.
  • Foods high in omega-3
    • These foods help reduce stress by aiding in brain function and reducing inflammation and are linked to reducing anxiety from stress
    • These foods include fish (tuna and salmon) Walnuts, flax and chia seeds.

A lot of what we talk about in Nutrition Education are health strategies that revolve around food because that’s what we are passionate about and experts on. Not to mention it plays such a huge role in our health, but there are so many self-care practices beyond just eating well. So many that this blog could easily be a book. The stressful holidays are upon us and will be gone even faster and self-care should not end when holidays end so with that said stay tuned because next month I am going to talk about other non-diet self-care practices that work well for me during times of stress.

In the meantime, just remember that self-care is all about making yourself a priority and taking the time to do something you enjoy. So, make it a point to take a little more time for yourself and nourish your body this holiday season and as often as you can in the New Year.

By: Hannah Sims- Nutrition Educator, Houston Food Bank