Foods to Avoid (or Eat More of) When Feeling Stressed

If you’re feeling stressed and eating foods that might have a negative impact on your health, find out what food to avoid & what to increase during this time.

If you often feel stressed and anxious, it can have a negative impact on your nutrient intake. During times of stress, some people may find themselves reaching for high-sugar or high-fat “comfort foods,” while others may find that their stress or anxious feelings lead to a loss of appetite. Our Nutrition team weighs in on the foods that could help you, particularly when you are experiencing stress or anxiety. Note: there is no superfood to cure stress and anxiety; however, there are foods that are linked with improved mood and gut health that can have a positive impact on wellbeing.

Include: Plant-based foods

Plant-based eating means higher antioxidants, fiber and healthy fats, and is consistently linked with improved health and mood. Try focusing the majority of your food intake on plant-based foods. Start with one meat-free day per week and work your way up! Whole grains contain a type of amino acid that makes your body produce serotonin, the “happy chemical,” which can help to improve mood. Conveniently, many plant-based foods are also good sources of B vitamins, such as whole grains, nuts and seeds, fresh and dried fruit, and green leafy vegetables. Research has also shown that vitamin B intake may help to improve feelings of stress! 

Include: Fish

Fish, particularly fatty fish like salmon and trout, are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids help the body to circulate serotonin and dopamine, chemicals that can help to boost mood and reduce anxiety. Tinned fish, such as tinned tuna in olive oil, is a great budget-friendly option. Try including fatty fish at least 1-2 x a week in your nutrition plan to reduce feelings of stress. 

Include: Fermented foods

Plenty of nutrition research indicates that there is a link between our gut health and mental health. Regularly including fermented foods can help enhance the environment in your gut and have an influence on mood and emotions. Try including options such as unsweetened yoghurts,  kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha. 

Avoid: High-sugar foods

While many people reach for sugary or fatty food options during times of stress—such as cookies or chocolate—it is not a great long-term strategy for stress management. These types of cravings might be driven by the need for comfort or palatable foods, controlled by the brain’s ‘reward center.’ These only provide short-term relief from the stress you may be feeling. Long-term, however, these types of foods don’t contribute to overall health and wellbeing.

Avoid: Excess caffeine

Although caffeine is a stimulant known to assist mental alertness, it can have a negative effect on your mood or performance when you are already feeling stressed or anxious. Caffeine can heighten the feelings of stress and anxiety, particularly in susceptible individuals. If you are a regular coffee drinker, start with one coffee earlier in the day and see how you feel before reaching for another. Some low-caffeine options include herbal teas or a decaf coffee.

Avoid: Excess alcohol 

Alcohol is a depressant, so it is often used to “unwind” or deal with emotions; however, there are a long list of negative effects associated with consistent, long-term alcohol intake. Alcohol can heighten anxiety the day after drinking, even after drinking small amounts. Alcohol can also impact sleep quality, which is not helpful for stress levels. If you are feeling stressed or anxious, try to limit alcohol intake and focus on other healthy stress management behaviours.  

Some tips:

If you are someone who finds you lose your appetite when you’re stressed or anxious, try eating smaller meals or snacks, spread out across the day. It is more difficult to sit down and try to eat a full meal when you have a lack of appetite than to eat small snacks or mini meals. Smoothies can also be a helpful way of getting plenty of nutrients into your body in an easy-to-consume format. 

Reaching for comfort foods such as chocolate or ice cream is also normal for someone who feels anxious or stressed out—you likely just want something that is quick and will keep you going. However, doing this often can lead to excess consumption. A useful strategy to manage this type of eating is to practice mindful eating. Eat your healthier meals first, tune in to your appetite, focus on the tastes and flavours of the food, and  slow down your chewing. Allow yourself some time after you have finished to digest and then reassess if you still crave the less healthy options. If you do, allow yourself a small amount. It will be easier to stop at a small amount if you are eating mindfully and have had a full, healthy meal beforehand.