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  • Margaret Kavanagh Nutrition

How Stress Impacts Your Food Choices and 10 Foods To Eat When Stressed

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

The WHO says that stress is the health epidemic of the twenty-first century. Stress can be behind a range of symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, low libido, gut problems, poor concentration, and high blood pressure, just to name a few health conditions.


How stress impacts our body


When we’re stressed our bodies release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol putting us into the fight, flight or freeze mode.


This important process was crucial for our survival as humans when facing extreme threats. These stress hormones send signals to our brains to direct blood flow to our extremities so we can take quick action and literally run more quickly. This means blood flow is directed away from our digestive system and other ‘non-essential’ bodily processes. So, our food digestion and nutrient absorption are put on pause.


The problem in our ‘always on’ world is that we are frequently in this fight/flight/freeze mode. The body and mind don’t know the difference between real and perceived stress…so something as simple as a thought can trigger this response. You can imagine the impact of this long term on the body – without nutrients from food to fuel us, we’re left feeling depleted, tired and even more stressed.


How stress impacts our food choices


Oftentimes, when in a stress state, we’re automatically drawn to high sugar, high fat comfort foods which keep us stuck in the stress cycle and contributes to weight gain, brain fog, tiredness and generally feeling rubbish.


When we eat these foods, which have been crafted to elicit a ‘bliss’ response, dopamine is released. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and is released as part of the brain’s reward centre signals. When behaviours are repeated, such as eating junk food when stressed, the brain learns how to behave and is rewarded for certain behaviour. The more you repeat the cycle, the more dopamine is released and the more your brain learns to go to junk food when you’re feeling stressed.


As human’s, we’re programmed to seek short term reward (dopamine hit) over long term delayed gratification. That’s why it’s often so hard for us to stay motivated on our long-term goals and so easy to opt for a bar of chocolate – our brains are literally rewarding us for our bad choice!


79% of us alter our food habits when stressed


Studies have shown that most of us either eat too much or too little when stressed.


36% of people studied ate too little when stressed. This means their body wants to keep them dealing with the stressful situation at hand, so it reduces hunger signals. The impact is that the body is not getting essential fuel to help deal with the situation at hand, keeping them in the stress cycle.


On the other hand, 43% of people studied ate too much when under stress. They not only ate more food, but the body extracted more calories from the food consumed, resulting in weight gain.


Another 2019 study showed that when we eat high calorie food while stressed, we gain more weight than if we’d eaten exactly the same thing while relaxed and happy.


The relationship between lifestyle and stress


Our lifestyle also has an impact on our food and drink choices when stressed. We’re less likely to plan ahead, shop for and cook healthy food. When we do eat, it is often mindlessly, in front of our computer screens, phones or TV’s. We snack more than normal and eat late at night, impacting our sleep which in turn impacts our hunger and stress hormones.


Many turn to alcohol to deal with stress, which in turn impacts nutrient absorption, increases hunger signals, contributes to weight gain and ends up making us feel worse the next day rather than better.

All these choices keep us on the wheel of stress.


What we can do


There are many different strategies and approaches that you can employ to help support your body and mind while dealing with periods of stress.


Become aware of your triggers


Becoming aware of our triggers and the associated behaviours is key to breaking the dopamine reward signalling process in the brain.


The next time you feel a craving, pause and tune into what you’re feeling. Is there something else you can do instead of reaching for ‘bliss’ foods? Try distracting yourself with breathing, a quick walk, phone a friend or get a glass of water.


How you eat


To get your body in the opposite state of fight/flight/freeze, you need to activate your parasympathetic nervous system otherwise known as the ‘rest and digest’ state.


A few key tips to activate your rest and digest state:

  • Take a few deep breaths before eating

  • Eat away from your computer, phone and TV

  • Enjoy your meals at the table with family or friends

  • Chew your food fully and savour every bite

  • Avoid eating on the go

  • Mindfully prepare your meals


What you eat


Eating a balanced healthy diet is one of the most important things you can do to support your body and mind during times of stress.

Fill up on whole grains, leafy greens, lean proteins, and Omega 3 fats to ensure your body gets an optimal amount of nutrients to fight physical and mental stresses.


Significant strides have been made in recent years regarding the gut-brain axis and how foods can fight stress, depression, anxiety and a range of other mental health issues. To read more about this, check out This is Your Brain on Food by Harvard Medical School MD, Uma Naidoo.


10 stress relieving foods


Here are just some of the foods you can add to your diet to support your body during times of stress:


Avocados contain a high glutathione content with blocks the intestinal absorption of certain fats which cause oxidative damage. They contain high levels of vitamin E, folate and beta carotene which boosts stress busting properties.


Blueberries have high levels of antioxidants. They are also linked to sharper cognition, better focus and clearer mind, helping you better deal with stress.


Chamomile tea has long been used as a natural soother and has been shown in clinical trials that it is effective in reducing the symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder.


Dark Chocolate has been shown to boost our mood in many clinical trials. Dark chocolate contains flavanols and polyphenols, two powerful antioxidants which can help combat stress. Moderation is key here, a few squares should satisfy your chocolate cravings.


Eggs are often referred to as nature’s multivitamin because of their impressive nutrient profile. Whole eggs are packed with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants needed for a healthy stress response. Whole eggs are particularly rich in choline, a nutrient found in large amounts in only a few foods. Choline has been shown to play an important role in brain health and may protect against stress.


Green leafy vegetables are a key part of any healthy diet. They help combat stress, are full of nutrients and antioxidants which help fight disease and energise your body. Dark leafy greens are good for mood regulation. Rich in folate, which helps your body to produce more neurotransmitters such as serotonin, the feel-good chemical.


Organic Grass Fed Beef is not only kinder to the planet and to animals but is also good for people. It contains antioxidants such as beta carotene, vitamin C and E and has higher levels of omega 3 all of which can help your body deal with stress and anxiety.


Oats helps your brain produce higher levels of the feel-good chemical serotonin, helping you feel calmer and less stressed.


Pistachios are great for snacking (and deshelling helps us eat more mindfully). Studies have shown that eating two small snack sized portions per day can lower vascular constriction when stressed, putting less pressure on your heart.


Sweet potatoes are a whole food that makes an excellent carb choice. They’re packed with nutrients that are important for stress response, such as vitamin C and potassium.


Margaret Kavanagh Nutrition works with busy professionals suffering with low energy and fatigue helping them make the switch from exhausted to energised so they can win at work and thrive in life.


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