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Does Food Stress You Out?

Though stress can happen in many areas of our lives, food stress is often overlooked. Find out how your food affects your stress levels, what to avoid, and what to eat instead.

December 12, 2017 | HF Healthy Living Team

Stress can affect the body in many ways. Job stress, relationships, and social stress, are a few of its regular sources. But stressors can also occur from your food choices and eating habits. And food stress can occur in more ways than you might think.

Stress has been proven to directly influence eating habits, according to an American Psychological Association (APA) survey. In it, 38 percent of adults admitted to eating unhealthy foods due to stress.

And eating unhealthy foods because of stress can worsen your mental health. There is good news, though: choose your food carefully, and help alleviate your stress levels.

Check out what foods to avoid and what to eat to minimize stress below.

What to Avoid

Many common go-to foods can lead to higher stress levels, and even hide in some surprising foods. Try to limit your intake of unnatural food-like products like junk food. As a smart tip, learn how to read the ingredients on the food label so you know what you’re eating.

Some proven foods that can cause stress include:

  • Simple Carbohydrates: Simple carbs are made from one or two sugar molecules that lack fiber. They leave the bloodstream fast, usually causing what’s called a crash. Limit excess sugar, white bread, and white pasta as often as possible. Find out how to spot hidden sugar here.
  • Artificial Sweeteners: Sugar in excess is not the only negative contributor to stress. Studies have proven that artificial sweeteners like Aspartame and Splenda increase cortisol (a stress hormone) in the body. These sweeteners can hide in manufactured foods too (gum, for example).
  • Processed Food/Snacks: Try to lay off the salt and avoid things like fries, pretzels, and potato chips; they are also simple carbs. Try to stay away from most granola bars as well; many are candy bars in disguise, with regard to sugar content.

Avoid Too much Caffeine
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  • Too Much Caffeine: You need not exclude caffeine from your diet, but too much can increase your stress levels, especially if you’re already anxious. Sweet foods also contain caffeine, so check for ingredients in things like protein bars, ice cream, and yogurt.
  • Spicy Foods: If you already experience stress-related digestive problems, stay away from spicy foods. They will only further complicate those issues. Because food stays in your stomach longer when you’re stressed, spicy foods could even contribute to things like acid reflux.

What to Eat to De-stress

Make sure to eat a healthy diet filled with nutritious fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins; they are known to be calming foods. Experts are continuing to study depression and stress with the correlation of a lack of nutrients like folate, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, zinc, omega 3s, and more.

Eating Healthy Foods
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Some good options that have been proven to reduce stress include:

  • Complex carbohydrates: All carbs are not the same. Unlike simple carbs, complex carbs help to produce serotonin (a natural mood stabilizer) that can help to reduce depression, anxiety, and stress. Try a number of starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and yams. You could even try whole grain pasta or oatmeal, brown rice, and more.
  • Berries: Berries are not only good for your heart, they are also high in vitamin C, which can help to lower cortisol levels
  • Nuts and Seeds: The best nuts and seeds to curb stress are walnuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds. They help to lower blood pressure, which can keep your anxiety levels down. They also have a high level of folate, which can help to control emotional responses.
  • Ginger: Ginger contains gingerol, an antioxidant that fights bad chemicals in the body that lead to psychological or physical stress. Try this refreshing ginger drink today.
  • Dark, Leafy Greens: Greens like spinach and kale are high in magnesium, which is known to alleviate stress in the body. A deficiency in magnesium can also lead to irritability and stress.
  • Dark Chocolate: It turns out that not all chocolate is bad for stress. A small amount (no more than a few small squares a day) of dark chocolate (at least 50% or more) can help to lower stress. This is because it’s rich in flavonoids (a compound found in plants that helps you relax) and phenethylamine (a chemical that boosts your mood).

Other Common Stressors

Avoid these common stressors as much as possible to help reduce stress levels and lead to an overall healthier life:

  • Nicotine: Try to stop smoking; this stimulant often leads to a dependency that has been proven to worsen stress
  • Alcohol: Limit your intake of alcohol. Many think that alcohol will help with stress, but it does the opposite in the long run. It’s known to contribute to more anxiety and depression, making stress harder to handle.
  • Energy drinks: It might seem like these give you a boost, but they often cause crashes due to the high levels of sugar and caffeine. And sugar and caffeine can increase stress hormones.

Looking for more tips on how to minimize stress? Check out four easy ways to manage stress here.


© 2017 HF Management Services, LLC.

Healthfirst is the brand name used for products and services provided by one or more of the Healthfirst group of affiliated companies.

This health information or program is for educational purposes only and not intended to treat, diagnose, or act as a substitute for medical advice from your provider. Consult your healthcare provider and always follow your healthcare provider’s instructions.

“Berries and Oxidative Stress Markers,” National Institutes of Health. September 6, 2015.

“Magnesium Deficiency and Stress,” National Institutes of Health. 2015.

“The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism,” Oxford Academic. June 1, 2015.

“Effects of Chocolate Intake on Perceived Stress,” National Institutes of Health. October 8, 2014.

“Trying to Eat Our Way to Stress Relief,” American Psychological Association. 2013

“Anti-Oxidative and Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Ginger in Health,” National Institutes of Health. April 4, 2013.

“Mental Health,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. March 29, 2010.

“Stress, Food, and Inflammation,” National Institutes of Health. April 21, 2010.


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