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Have you ever been so stressed you'd eat everything in sight if you could? I'm guessing a lot of us have had moments where we've taken out our frustrations and anxiety on a bag of chips or a tub of ice cream. Whenever I've eaten every sweet and salty snack in my apartment, I always wonder why I don't crave a salad or crudités when I'm worried about a big presentation, looming deadlines, or some personal drama.
While the chips and sweets can feel good at the moment, you'll inevitably feel the effects of a sugar crash or too much sodium later on. But "stress-eating" doesn't have to make you feel even worse—you could game the system, so to speak, and "stress-eat" to your advantage. It's just all about picking the right things to eat.
"While the two may seem separate, what we eat absolutely affects our stress levels and vice versa," says Brooke Scheller, MS, CNS, DCN-C, Director of Nutrition at Freshly. "When we eat a diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed food, this triggers imbalances in blood sugar causing us to crave more of these foods. On the flip side, our stress hormone, cortisol, is directly linked to our blood sugar levels. When we're in a constant state of stress, cravings for high-sugar and high-carb foods are common due to this biochemical process. Essentially, when we're in a state of stress, our body needs carbohydrates for fuel."
So, basically, those comfort foods you're relying on to relieve stress, might actually be causing even more stress thanks to changing blood sugar levels. "Blood sugar levels spike and drop shortly after consuming foods higher in added sugars (this takes about one two hours depending on the food) which can cause increases in stress hormone response!" adds Yasi Ansari, MS, RD, CSSD, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Spikes and drops in blood sugars can cause fatigue, anxiety, irritability, and hunger shortly after eating."
Foods to Avoid
If you want to use the power of food to reduce your stress levels, you're going to want to take a good look at what you're consuming and if it's actually helping or harming the cause. A poor diet can mess up a lot of things in your body, including rising cortisol levels (the primary stress hormone). "Not only does a poor diet trigger changes in blood sugar, but it can also trigger inflammation that furthers stress within the body," Scheller says. "While we often think of stress as something external, internal stress is also a reality. While this isn't as recognizable as the stress we feel after a busy day at work, this contributes to the body's overall stress load, making it more difficult to tolerate both internal and external stressors."
So what foods should you avoid or limit if you want to manage your stress? Scheller and Ansari shared a few:
Keep an eye on your sugar intake. "Generally speaking, foods that are higher in added sugars, can cause increases in stress levels," Ansari says.
Simple or refined carbs give a boost of glucose and energy, but they also cause a spike in blood sugar and the inevitable drop. That drop can leave us feeling hungry and irritable.
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Scheller says when you eat a high amount of processed foods, refined carbs, and sugar—and not enough nutrients, fruits, and vegetables—your body goes into a state of stress.
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"Foods and beverages that disrupt getting enough and getting quality sleep can increase irritability and decrease overall mood," Ansari says. "Research also suggests that insufficient sleep can increase the body's stress response and negatively affects cortisol. Getting enough sleep is important to help keep cortisol levels normal in the sleep-wake cycle."
She recommends limiting your caffeine intake to earlier in the day, and swapping in non-caffeinated beverages later on. "In addition to the negative effects caffeine can have on sleep, it can also increase stress levels throughout the day even while someone is simply at rest," she says.
Not eating on Schedule
WHEN you eat can also affect your cortisol levels. "Stick to a consistent eating schedule," Ansari says. "Skipping meals can put stress on the body. The more we can commit to eating on schedule, we can help keep stress levels stable." She recommends aiming to eat at least every three to four hours, in addition to eating when you're hungry or about to get hungry (this is where listening to your body will come in handy).
Foods to Eat
And if you're looking for foods that can help keep your stress levels down, you'll want to think about your blood sugar levels. "Because blood sugar is directly linked to stress levels, focusing on foods to level blood sugar are critical," Scheller explains. "Ensuring every meal and/or snack contains a source of protein, healthy fats, and fiber helps to offset blood sugar dips from carbohydrates. Minimize consumption of high sugar or refined carbohydrates. Even though we often crave these foods in times of stress, they can perpetuate the cycle of blood sugar irregularity."
Scheller and Ansari listed some foods and food groups to "stress-eat" below. It's not surprising that all of them are the usual suspects when it comes to maintaining an overall healthy diet.
Foods Lower in Added Sugars
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"According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, keeping added sugars to less than 10% of your total calories is the goal," Ansari says. "For the average 2000 kcal diet, this is about less than 10 grams of added sugars at each meal and snack (assuming you're eating about five times per day—snacks and meals included). Aim to add more foods with no added sugars such as unsweetened Greek yogurt with fresh fruit."
Foods High in Magnesium
"Magnesium is one of our key minerals for supporting relaxation and stress reduction," Scheller says. "However, estimates suggest that up to 70% of Americans are deficient in this critical nutrient. Ensuring adequate magnesium intake is one important way to help reduce stress and anxiety." Foods rich in magnesium include legumes, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, bananas, and dark chocolate.
Foods High in Fiber
Ansari recommends aiming to add foods high in fiber, like whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables. One meal suggestion is oats with fresh fruit and a side of eggs. "Oats are a 'slow-digesting' complex carb, this helps to prevent sugar spikes," she explains. "Eating carbs that are higher in fiber and paired with heart-healthy fats and proteins can also help to slow down the absorption of sugar in the blood."
Foods High in Protein
"Focus on fresh, minimally processed lean protein sources," Ansari says. "Processed meats can be high in sodium and made with additives that can increase stress within the body. Look or ask for fresh cuts of poultry and meat slices."
Other protein-rich meal and snack ideas include Greek yogurt with granola, seeds, and fruit; a fruit smoothie with Greek yogurt; and scrambled eggs with veggies.
"Our brain is made up of two-thirds fat, much of which is in the form of our omega-3 fatty acids," Scheller explains. "You may have heard of these healthy fats touted for their benefit on heart health or to reduce inflammation. However, omega-3 fats help to support the brain and improve our stress response. You can find omega-3s in wild-caught fatty fish (like salmon), walnuts, chia seeds, and hemp seeds."
Foods High in Vitamin C
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"Cortisol, our body's main stress hormone, is produced by the adrenal glands—tiny glands that sit just above the kidney," Scheller says. "Vitamin C is a critical nutrient for supporting the adrenal glands and production of this hormone. Therefore, vitamin C is essential for supporting irregular stress levels." You can get vitamin C from citrus fruits, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, bell peppers, and berries.
Foods That Provide Tryptophan
Ansari suggests searching out foods that provide tryptophan, an amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and happiness. Some foods include nuts, eggs, and legumes.