Eating to Relieve Stress

April 28, 2021

This year, it might feel a bit over-the-top to dedicate a month to making us aware of stress – most of us have been aware of our stress levels all year long. It has been an unusually stressful year!



Chronic stress can contribute to inflammation and elevated cortisol levels which can lead to increased appetite, weight gain, higher blood glucose levels, and even suppression of the immune system. What our bodies really need when they are stressed out is a good supply of nutrients to support our taxed systems. Unfortunately, when we start to feel tense, we tend to crave foods that are high in sugar or fat. Unhealthy eating patterns will only lead to increased levels of stress, thus causing a snowball effect of stress and poor eating which can ultimately undermine our health.



So, what can we do?

It may not surprise you to hear that the healthy eating habits we know support our physical health can also support our mental health – fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains. It can be challenging during times of stress to plan and prepare healthy meals when all we really want from our food is comfort, but here are a few foods to focus on if you are concerned about your stress levels:


Omega-3 Fatty Acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat that we must get from our diet, because our bodies cannot make them. They are found in high levels in fish such as salmon and sardines, but some plant-based sources include flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. Omega-3s are important in supporting our brain health, and though we always need them regularly, we may need to pay special attention to incorporating them into our daily diet when dealing with ongoing stress.


Probiotic Foods.

Have you heard of the gut-brain axis? Having a healthy gut is good for our digestive system and benefits immunity, but it also affects our mental health. The good bacteria in our colon produce neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which can stabilize our mood. To boost the helpful bacteria, include fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchee, tempeh, and kombucha in your diet.


Don’t miss out on carbs – particularly whole grains.

Carbohydrates are not the enemy – they provide plenty of glucose to fuel the brain. But the overly processed treats that come in packages with long and complicated ingredient lists are not your best bet – they may give you a quick boost in energy as your blood sugar spikes, but highs and lows are going to feel more stressful in the long run. Rather stick to minimally processed whole grains such as brown rice, oats, and whole wheat. These foods are a great source of B-vitamins, which are necessary in energy metabolism, and they are full of fiber which slows the release of glucose into the system keeping our blood sugar more stable. As an added benefit, fiber also feeds that good bacteria we want to keep happy in our gut.



Crunchy foods.


Rather than biting your nails or chewing on your pencil when you’re nervous, try chomping on some carrot or celery sticks. Chewing crunchy foods can actually be a stress reliever! Choose wisely however. The calories in potato chips and crackers can add up quickly, so opt for things like apples, crisp pears, bell pepper slices, and other crudité, which will provide additional nutrition in the form of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.


Tea instead of coffee.

Caffeine can provide an immediate rush of energy, but can also make us jittery and increase feelings of stress. Black or green tea could be a better choice if you need a replacement.


Finally, if stress is getting the better of you, do what you can to avoid skipping meals. Being under stress means that sometimes we may forget to eat, but the resulting drop in blood sugar is not going to serve us in the long run. Enjoy healthful comfort foods such as a warm bowl of oatmeal, creamy guacamole served with crisp veggies, or yogurt with berries. And a truly indulgent comfort food every once in a while isn’t the end of the world. Restricting and resisting can add to our stress levels, so be kind to yourself by nourishing both your body and your soul.   

The Author

Lorelei Sturm, MS, RD, LDN

My goal as a dietitian has always been to help people live longer, healthier lives, and hopefully prevent, rather than manage disease. However, I understand how easy it is to feel conflicted about following dietary recommendations that seem like a lot of effort and a lot of restriction. A long-time vegetarian, I am passionate about food and eating and wholeheartedly believe that nutritious food can and should taste delicious.

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