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What to Eat (and What to Skip) When You’re Stressed

Nov 27 2020
6 min read
Close-up of woman's hand picking up apple in grocery store.

Stress often affects the way people eat.

What and how you eat during these times matter. Mindful choices can help improve your mood, wellness, and resilience.

The Food-Stress Connection

The production of stress hormones like cortisol by the adrenal glands increases when tensions are high, and that change has an effect on the way your body craves and processes food. Convenient comfort foods may be more tempting. You may find yourself overeating or even undereating.

On top of putting you at risk for weight gain and health conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease, it’s important to understand that many of the foods you may reach for during tense times actually promote stress. Other picks, however, are smart to seek out when the pressure’s on because they combat the effects of stress hormones, energize your body and mind, and promote a positive mood.

When you’re feeling particularly wound up or run down, do what you can to manage your stress in a healthy way, and consult this guide to making food choices that will help your efforts.

Try to Avoid:

Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates: Your body processes sugar and refined carbohydrates more quickly than fiber-containing whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, leading to a spike in blood glucose. Though this is never ideal, it’s especially problematic when you’re stressed. As a result, cortisol helps the body pump even more glucose into your system. It also inhibits the production of insulin that would typically bring those levels back to normal. Cortisol is a strong appetite stimulant, and when the body thinks it’s hungry, you tend to crave more carbs, creating a negative cycle. If stress is causing you to crave these comfort foods, take a walk, pick up a book, or call a friend for a momentary distraction. Revisit your hunger 30 minutes later and decide if you still need a snack or just needed to take your mind off the circumstances.

Alcohol: If you drink, we encourage you to practice moderation. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting consumption to a maximum of two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women, or ideally eliminating alcohol altogether. You’re more likely to make unhealthy food choices, and overeat, when you’re intoxicated. Alcohol also suppresses the digestive system and impairs the body’s utilization of nutrients. And, as with sugar and refined carbs, alcohol stimulates the adrenal gland to increase cortisol production, leaving you feeling even more stressed. Drinking too much can also lead to another stressful effect: a miserable hangover.

Focus on:

Protein. Your body needs tryptophan, an amino acid found in certain protein-rich foods, to produce serotonin, a brain chemical that promotes healthy sleep and a good mood. Be sure to consume carbohydrates as well. Adequate levels of glucose from carbohydrates allow your body to absorb tryptophan into the brain.

How to Work It In: Try to combine lean protein (eggs, fish, poultry, soy foods, dairy, nuts, or seeds) with whole-food carbohydrates (whole-wheat toast, whole grains, quinoa, or starchy veggies like sweet potatoes and winter squash) at every meal and snack.

B Vitamins. Thiamine, riboflavin, biotin, and the other B vitamins have many functions in the body, including energy and cortisol metabolism, proper brain function, and serotonin production, closely linking them with your ability to weather the effects of stress. A lack of adequate B vitamins in your diet can lead to fatigue or mental confusion. And in one study, people who increased their B vitamin intake with supplementation reported significantly less personal stress than those who made no dietary changes.

How to Work It In: Some of our favorite foods rich in B vitamins include asparagus; beans; beets; bell peppers; broccoli; clams; lentils; mackerel; mustard and turnip greens; spinach; whole grains; and fortified foods like cereals and soy products. Watermelon, kiwi, peaches, bananas,x and oranges are other good sources. You can also consider a multivitamin containing B vitamins or a B-complex supplement (we don’t recommend more than a B-50 complex). It’s best to check with your doctor before starting any new supplements.

Magnesium. Magnesium-rich foods, such as almonds, dark leafy greens, brown rice, tofu, peas, beans, bananas, and avocados, play a role in energy production and support of the stress-adaptive hormones, as well as cortisol metabolism. Magnesium intake is low in the typical Western diet, and people who don’t get enough may experience more of the physiological damage that can be caused by stress, such as inflammation, insulin resistance, and endothelial dysfunction – a change in the cells lining your blood vessels that is a predictor for stroke and heart attacks.

How to Work It In: Choose whole grains over refined grains and enjoy a dark leafy salad each day to easily increase your magnesium intake. Magnesium supplementation is also an option. We generally suggest buying a magnesium chelate product, which is gentle and well-absorbed. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for magnesium is 320 mg for women and 420 mg for men.

Vitamin C. This nutrient is secreted during the stress response, and has been found to lower cortisol levels. In one study, people who took about 1,000 mg of vitamin C every day for two weeks before a stressful task experienced lower blood pressure and faster cortisol recovery (a return to a normal level) compared to those who didn’t supplement; they even reported feeling less stressed during the activity.

How to Work It In: There are many foods that are rich in vitamin C; in fact, all fruits and vegetables contain the nutrient. Some of the best sources are brussels sprouts, cabbage, citrus fruits, kiwi, mango, melon, papaya, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and winter squash. If you’re supplementing, stick to no more than 500 mg twice a day, which is as much as your body can absorb at one time.