Surprising choices that can help keep you calm

Powerhouse foods, such as salmon (with its heart-protective omega-3s) and spinach (with its cancer-fighting flavonoids), win lots of praise for their ability to help fight diseases.

Few people realize, however, that these foods — and some others — also help reduce and protect against the harmful effects that ongoing stress can have on the body, be it from a chronic illness or a hectic work schedule. By consuming a variety of foods that work synergistically, you can help prevent many of the negative effects of stress.

Powerful stress-fighting foods…

Black-eyed peas. These are an excellent source of folate, a B vitamin crucial to fighting stress.

My advice: Eat one-half cup daily of black-eyed peas (or other folate-rich legumes, such as chickpeas, red beans, black beans or lentils).

Also good: Try one ounce of sunflower seeds (toasted kernels) or one-half cup to one cup of cooked broccoli daily.

Mangoes. Antioxidants, such as vitamin C, help repair the damage that occurs to our cells when we are under stress. Oranges are one option, but mangoes may be an even better choice because they not only contain vitamin C but also disease-fighting carotenoids, including beta-carotene and vitamin E.

My advice: Enjoy mango at least once a week when in season. Because frozen fruit is picked at the height of the season and promptly frozen, it is a great substitute if fresh fruit is not available. Mango can be cubed and eaten alone or tossed in a mixed fruit salad. Use frozen mango in smoothies or chopped mango in salsa.

If you don’t like mangoes (or you are allergic): Try other vitamin C sources, such as kiwi (two small fruits daily)… or cranberry, orange, blueberry, pomegranate or grape juice (six to eight ounces of 100% juice daily).

Nuts. Almonds, pistachios and walnuts are rich in vitamin E, another antioxidant that helps curb stress-induced cell damage.

My advice: Eat a handful (one ounce) of almonds, pistachios or walnuts daily or every other day. Be sure to keep the portions small — nuts are relatively high in calories. If you have high blood pressure, choose nuts that are unsalted or low in sodium.

If you don’t like nuts (or you are allergic): Try avocado. One or two thin slices daily (or one-quarter cup cubed) has the same beneficial fats found in nuts plus potassium, a mineral that has been shown to help lower elevated blood pressure.

Sweet potatoes. These creamy, almost dessertlike root vegetables are brimming with antioxidant carotenoids, such as beta-carotene. In addition, sweet potatoes provide vitamin C, potassium and an appreciable amount of fiber (five to six grams for a medium potato), which contributes to the widely recommended 25- to 30-gram-per-day goal.

If you don’t like sweet potatoes (or you are allergic): Eat carrots (one-half cup daily)… cantaloupe (one-quarter cup daily)… apricots (three to five dried or one fresh daily)… or acorn squash (one-half squash daily).

Yogurt or kefir. Stress can lead to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which, in turn, wears down the immune system. Although it’s not widely known, a significant amount of immune system activity takes place in the gastrointestinal tract.

When a person is under chronic stress, he/she is more susceptible to infections and, as a result, may take an antibiotic. These drugs destroy not only the harmful bacteria that are making you sick, but also the “good” bacteria in your gut.

By consuming yogurt or kefir (a tangy, yogurtlike drink), you can replace those healthful bacteria, which are key to maintaining a vital immune system.

My advice: Add one serving a day (a single-serving container of yogurt or a cup of kefir) to your diet. Choose a yogurt or kefir product that says “live and active cultures” on the label — and be sure that it contains the following strains of healthful bacteria — Lactobacillus casei… and/or Lactobacillus acidophilus. If you’re taking an antibiotic, look for S. boulardii or Lactobacillus GG — these strains are most effective in people who take these medications.

Good news: Many people who are lactose-intolerant are able to consume yogurt and/or kefir. Start with only one-quarter cup of yogurt or kefir once or twice a week and slowly increase the amount as your body adjusts. Naturally fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, also contain healthful bacteria — try one-half cup serving daily.