While short term stress can shut down appetite, chronic stress can lead to overeating, particularly of high-fat, sugary "comfort foods.” Emotional eating is another form of stress eating, when your emotions dictate what and when you eat. Research shows that stress is linked to weight gain. According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, more than three-quarters of Americans have reported physical or emotional symptoms of stress.
Why does stress eating happen? Stress causes the release of cortisol which increases appetite and ramps up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Food offers additional comfort, and unfortunately the least healthy foods offer the most comfort. Foods high in fat, sugar or salt activates the brain’s reward system. In fact, highly palatable foods activate the same brain regions of reward and pleasure as what enforces drug addiction.
What foods should I avoid? Stress increases blood pressure, constricts blood vessels to reduce blood flow, increases inflammation and brings on feelings of sadness or depression. Certain nutrients exacerbate the response to stress, such as simple carbohydrates including sugar. During times of stress, the body prepares itself by making sure it has enough energy or sugar available. Insulin levels falls and the liver releases more glucose (sugar) into the blood. Eating sugar during this time can overburden the body’s handling of sugar plus it promotes further inflammation and exacerbates stress. Diets high in fat is shown also to increase a person’s perceived stress, plus it increases inflammation and leads to weight gain. Caffeine can also exacerbate stress if taken in excess amounts. A 10 oz cup of coffee can double the levels of adrenaline and cortisol, both involved in stress response!
Focus on eating nutrition-packed foods for stress relief. While it’s easy to grab a pastry to go or raid the snack cabinet in the evenings at home, taking a pause to stop that auto-drive to grab comfort foods might help. Of course, when we are extra busy, eating healthy is not an easy habit to maintain. While meal prepping doesn’t always fit into the schedule and grabbing convenient fast food is more the norm, making healthier choices will greatly improve your overall diet and eventually reduce your stress. In addition, particular nutrients in foods can help combat the physiological responses to stress improve blood flow, reduce inflammation, stabilize blood sugars, and promote feelings of calmness or wellness.
What foods should I eat? Nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), found in seeds, fish, and nuts, have been documented to reduce anxiety symptoms and inflammation. Magnesium also promotes stress relief and is found in leafy green vegetables, avocados, nuts, and whole grains. Finally, foods high in tryptophan may help boost mood and promote calmness, including meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, nuts and beans. Foods containing complex carbohydrates can also prompt the brain to make serotonin, help stabilize blood sugar and keep you feeling full.
For ideas on how to eat for stress relief, click here to receive a free Stress Busting Recipe booklet.
Other considerations. In addition to practicing a healthy diet, therapeutic doses of the right supplements can be reasonable additions to help target stress, particularly when accessing the right nutrients in food becomes too difficult. L-Theanine, panax ginseng, and green tea extract are all herbs that can support stress relief.Omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and vitamin B complex also can help support stress relief. While supplements within a specific dose are considered generally safe for many individuals, consult your health care provider before beginning any supplementation regimen.
Dr. Linda May-Zhang has over 10 years of research experience in nutrition, chronic diseases and pharmacology. She has published over 20 peer-reviewed academic papers in scientific journals. She is also a science writer with a passion for educating the lay public.