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Stress-busting dishes to feel your best

April 23, 2024 | Valerie Elwell
Angel Food Cake with Raspberry Drizzle is displayed on white plate with fresh berries on the side and the full cake in the background.

This delectable angel food cake drizzled with raspberry sauce is the perfect dessert to celebrate spring. All photos by Jessica VanRoo

Feeling stressed on occasion is normal, especially when we face challenges at home, on the job, with family and even health and financial concerns. But coping with anxiety, nervousness, frustration, helplessness and depression can profoundly affect our sleep, appetite, mental health and energy levels.

Just as there are foods that amplify stress and anxiety — like caffeine, refined sugar, highly processed foods and alcohol — others help tamp down their effects on our physical and mental health.

“Eating healthy and fueling your body well can definitely help reduce stress and inflammatory responses,” says Katie E. Rankell, a registered dietitian and program director of the UCI Health Weight Management Program. To stay on an even keel, she recommends eating wholesome foods, including fiber-rich grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as fish high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Savor these stress-busting recipes created by Jessica VanRoo, executive chef of the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute, part of UCI Health.


Spring pea soup with mint


Three bowls of Spring Pea Soup with Mint displayed on purple textured counter.

Early findings of a National Institutes of Health-funded study suggest that increasing the diversity of the gut microbiome by eating more nutritious foods correlates with a decrease in anxiety and depression.

The peas in this refreshing soup are tiny in size but mighty in nutrients that benefit digestive health and other body systems.

Part of the legume family, peas contain 12 grams of protein per serving and 10 grams of fiber, which slows the breakdown of carbohydrates and help regulate blood sugar. The high fiber content also moves food through the digestive tract more efficiently and keeps you feeling full longer, Rankell says.

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The vitamins and minerals in this superfood contribute to heart and overall health by reducing oxidation and inflammation in the blood vessels walls and preventing the formation of plaques. They are also rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids that act as filters for blue light and help protect your eyes from cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.

Mint is an herb well known for its calming effects for both digestion and aromatherapy. Its leaves are packed with antioxidants and phytonutrients, along with vitamin A, vitamin C and B-complex, phosphorous and calcium. Mint leaves also have germicidal properties that help freshen breath.

Adding a dollop of crème fraîche (fermented cream) or yogurt adds another probiotic punch. Fermented foods are known to help improve the gut microbiome by increasing the good bacteria that help calm stress responses and inflammation.


Crunchy baked fish with lemony couscous


Crunchy Baked Fish with Lemony Couscous displayed on white plate and lemon wedge.

Fish is a lean protein that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that contribute to heart and brain health.

Multiple research studies have linked the increased intake of the omega-3 fatty acids (also found in chia and flax seeds) to a reduction in inflammatory markers.

The American Heart Association recommends eating 3.5 ounces of fish, two times a week.

Unrefined carbohydrates, like this couscous side dish, can boost serotonin — a hormone considered a natural mood stabilizer that plays a role in sleep, digestion and other key body functions.

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Couscous is also rich in selenium, a powerful mineral important for proper thyroid function and metabolism. This mineral also has been linked to slowing age-related mental decline and supporting the immune system.

Tomatoes in this recipe contribute substantial amounts of lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin — key antioxidants that promote eye and heart health.

Along with the lemon, tomatoes add a significant influx of vitamin C, which is linked to higher antioxidant levels, lower blood pressure, protection against arthritis, improved iron absorption and a reduction in dementia risks.


Angel food cake with raspberry drizzle


Angel Food Cake with Raspberry Drizzle is displayed on white plate with fresh berries on the side and the full cake in the background.Angel food cake is a type of sponge cake that originated in the United States, becoming hugely popular in the late 19th century.

It's low in calories because it is made without butter or oil and has a light, fluffy texture that comes from whipped egg whites.

Eggs provide choline, a vital, water-soluble compound that's needed to promote a healthy nervous system, metabolism, brain development, muscle movement and liver function. Two eggs provide more than half of the recommended daily intake of choline.

Chockful of protein, eggs also contain all the essential amino acids in the right ratios to help our bodies use that protein efficiently.

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This recipe also calls for vanilla, whose fragrance alone can create a calming effect. But its active ingredient, vanillin, actually stimulates the production of serotonin, the happy hormone that can help to reduce anxiety, enhance mood and promote feelings of well-being.

Vanilla also contains powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds that can benefit brain health and protect against neurodegenerative diseases.

Adding a sauce made of fresh raspberries boosts the antioxidant quotient with high levels of vitamin C, quercetin and ellagic acid, all of which help combat inflammation, increase immune system function and aid in muscle recovery after exercise.

It's the perfect dessert to celebrate spring!

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