The Best and Worst Foods for Stress

April 30, 2016

What you eat affects how you handle stress. Here we share the best and worst foods for stress – and it’s not that pint of Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer!

What you eat affects how you handle stress. Here are the best and worst foods for stress - and it's not that pint of Ben & Jerry's in the freezer! @jlevinsonrd

April is Stress Awareness Month! I know I’m a little late to the game here, seeing how it’s the last day of the month, but I wanted to share the news. Sorry for the delay, but hey it’s been a hectic – shall we say stressful? – couple of weeks, what with preparing for Passover and the kids being off from school and all. Anyway, I’m glad I could get this post up before the month is officially over and stress doesn’t limit its appearance in our lives to only one month a year (at least not in my life!), so as far as I’m concerned this post is applicable all year long.

Today’s post was put together in joint effort by occasional Nutritioulicious guest blogger Tiana Yom, MPH and me. Tiana actually planned to write this post in full, but then I was interviewed on this very topic so I chimed in with some additional info.

So, stress and food – there’s a link. We tend to indulge in comfort foods when we’re stressed out, but before you reach for that pint of ice cream to calm your nerves, find out which food and beverages you should enjoy more of and which you should limit when stressed.

Best foods and beverages to eat when stressed

Nuts
Unsalted pistachios, cashews, almonds, and walnuts are a powerhouse package of fiber, antioxidants, and unsaturated fatty acids — all of which lower blood pressure. In particular, pistachios are a good source of magnesium, a mineral that helps regulate levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to play a role in reducing anxiety and symptoms of depression.

Ricotta Berry Oatmeal Cups @jlevinsonrd

Oats
Like other carb-rich foods, oats bump up your feel-good hormone serotonin. But unlike sugary carbs like donuts, oats are an excellent source of slow-to-digest fiber, which means your blood sugar levels won’t be zigzagging all over the place. Plus, oatmeal is comforting, which is just what you need during times of stress. If you like, add a sprinkle of cinnamon as it’s known for its heart healthy benefits.

Fermented foods
If you’re someone who gets stressed in social situations, you may want to increase your intake of yogurt, kefir, miso, kimchi, and sauerkraut. A 2015 study in Psychiatry Research looked at the relationship between fermented foods and social anxiety. They found that higher intake of fermented foods was associated with fewer symptoms of anxiety, most probably due to the positive effects of probiotics on the gut. More research on this needs to be done, but it’s an interesting association and adds to the increasing body of evidence on the gut microbiome.

Decaffeinated Teas
Decaffeinated and herbal teas are infused with calming herbs and spices, which contain many vitamins and minerals to energize your body and mind. For tea suggestions, check out this post about Hot Tea Month.

Worst foods and beverages to eat when stressed

Sugar
At first sweet bite, we experience a temporary moment of bliss. However sugary foods may actually increase anxiety and decrease the body’s ability to cope with stress. Stressful situations trigger your blood sugar levels to skyrocket. Under stress, your body goes into a fight-or-flight mode, which raises blood sugar levels in preparation for action. The last thing your body needs is more sugar to fuel the stress and anxiety that comes with it.

Strawberry Rhubarb Mimosa @Jlevinsonrd

Alcohol
A glass of wine or a fun cocktail may seem to calm our nerves in the short term, but a research review from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism shows that alcohol may actually compound the effects of stress long term. In addition, a 2012 study from University of Chicago suggests that alcohol dampens the body’s normal hormonal response to stress, which can actually make stress worse.

Spicy Foods
Digestion may slow down or even stop in stressful conditions as the body diverts its energy to the fight-or-flight response. As a result, those foods that you have trouble digesting or that exacerbate heartburn and gastric reflux should be avoided. That means spicy foods, chocolate, citrus, tomatoes, and caffeine should be consumed with caution.

High-Calorie Foods
Just as digestion slows down during stressful situations, so too does our metabolism. Research from Ohio State University showed that women who reported being stressed burned fewer calories than those who were not stressed. To avoid weight gain during stressful times, limit foods and meals that are very high in calories.

Basically, that donut or pint of ice cream you reach for at the end of a stressful day will only do more harm than good – for both your stress level and waistline.

In addition to what you eat and drink, there are plenty of behavioral changes you can make to combat stress: Take a walk, go for a run, play a sport, spend time with a friend or loved one, meditate, go to a yoga class or do 15 minutes of yoga at home, and most importantly smile. Smiling has great health benefits!

For more foods to eat when stressed, check out the article I was quoted in at Bustle.com: 11 Foods to Eat When You’re Stressed That Can Help You Relax

How do you relax and recharge when you get stressed out?

What you eat affects how you handle stress. Here are the best and worst foods for stress - and it's not that pint of Ben & Jerry's in the freezer! @jlevinsonrd
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    1. So glad you found it informative and new information for you Sonali. Good luck with the apartment closing – that’s definitely a high stress topic!

  1. Destressing is SO important – and it’s so much more than taking in a big breath or doing a little bit of yoga!

    The food we put in our mouth definitely makes such a big difference to how we live so I am loving this post!

  2. Great post! I definitely agree with you on these foods, though I’m on the fence on the alcohol. Sometimes, a nice margarita really does the trick for me lol! But then, caveat, I enter the chips and salsa, then the next am, maybe more stressed and bloated lol! Live and learn, right?!

    1. Thanks Liz! I’m with you on the alcohol – I definitely feel like it helps me calm down, but it was interesting to read the research on the longer term affects.

  3. I’m glad you got this post up in April, but you’re right that it is applicable all year. 🙂 The foods that add to anxiety and stress aren’t surprising, but it was definitely interesting to read about fermented foods and social anxiety!