Picture this: You're deep in a stress spiral and the hunger pangs hit. Chances are a kale salad isn't the first meal that comes to mind. But opting for a cheeseburger and fries may not be the best answer — and it could even make things worse.
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Emerging research suggests that what we eat has the power to soothe or stoke stress. The idea has its roots in nutritional psychiatry, a blossoming field that examines the diet's role in mental health and wellness.
"The food we eat is transformed into the protein-building blocks, enzymes, neurons and neurotransmitters that transfer information and signals around our bodies," Rachel Naar, RD, a New York City-based registered dietitian and founder of the private practice Rachel Naar Nutrition, tells LIVESTRONG.om. "In that sense, we are what we eat, and our dietary patterns influence the function of our brain and body."
Research supports the connection between food and mood. A Mediterranean-style diet (in addition to pharmacological treatments) has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of depression in clinically depressed people, per a January 2017 trial in BMC Medicine. What's more: For about a third of the people in the Mediterranean diet group, their depressive symptoms actually went away within 12 weeks.
Clearly, food has the power to affect how we feel. And if certain foods can make us feel better, then some foods may have the opposite effect.
Below, we highlight the four worst foods and beverages to eat or drink when you're stressed, plus nourishing alternatives that will help you eat your way to calm.
1. Ultra-Processed Foods
"Increasing the amount eaten at a meal, snack or throughout the day due to stress and anxiety is very common, and most humans are not eating more broccoli," Sydney Greene, RD, registered dietitian and founder of the private practice Greene Health, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "In fact, it is well established that humans turn to what is referred to in research as 'highly palatable foods,' aka foods with a high fat and/or sugar content."
Highly palatable foods are ultra-processed foods, or UPFs, which are packaged foods sky-high in sugar, hydrogenated fats, sodium, dyes and/or artificial flavors and preservatives, per Harvard Health Publishing. Think: frozen pizzas, candy bars, soda, flavored potato chips and snack cakes and other plastic-wrapped sweets — basically, any packaged food with a long list of ingredients.
UPFs are undeniably convenient — and, let's be real, tasty — but research suggests there's a link between them and poor mental health. People who ate the greatest amounts of ultra-processed, pro-inflammatory foods were found to have a 23 percent greater risk of developing depression compared to people who ate the lowest amounts of pro-inflammatory foods, according to an October 2018 study in Public Health Nutrition.
Ultra-processed diets have also been linked to higher levels of a potent inflammatory biomarker called C-reactive protein, or CRP. Perhaps not coincidentally, CRP tends to be elevated in people diagnosed with clinical depression, per a January 2018 study in Antioxidants & Redox Signaling.
It's not clear whether UPFs bring on stress or stress triggers the urge to eat UPFs. While it's likely a complicated combination of the two, experts agree that eating meals virtually devoid of nutrients doesn't exactly promote mental wellness.
"Over time, reaching for hyper-palatable foods during stressful situations may promote irregular eating patterns and strengthen networks towards hedonic or pleasure-seeking overeating," Greene says.
When stress comes on strong, reaching for a drink can feel like a no-brainer. After all, alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant, per the National Library of Medicine, meaning it slows down brain activity — a welcome breather from all-consuming anxiety.
Yes, an adult beverage may calm us down in the moment, but booze can actually exacerbate stress in the long-term.
"Point blank, alcohol is a known depressant that can cause alterations in mood while drinking as well as six to 48 hours after drinking," Greene explains. "It is common to feel anxious, sad, overwhelmed or alone after drinking episodes."
Indeed, animal studies have shown that rodents forced into an alcohol withdrawal state exhibit greater levels of stress and anxiety compared to their counterparts that continue drinking, per an October 2019 review in Alcohol Research. In other words, heavy drinking may heighten stress levels once the hangover clears up. (But to be clear, this research was done in animals, and we can't assume it would have the same effect in humans.)
Leaning on alcohol in times of stress may stymie your metabolism, too.
"Alcohol is a toxin in the body, so when it is consumed, it becomes the body's top priority to metabolize and excrete it," Greene explains. Essentially, the body pauses digestion of other substances and instead focuses on getting alcohol out of the system stat. "This creates a heavy workload for our livers and effectively hits the stop button on our metabolism," Greene says.
3. Ice Cream (Including the Low-Calorie Kind)
There's a reason ice cream is a perfect pick for emotional eaters: It's delicious and goes down easy. That's part of the reason why brands like Halo Top and Enlightened brought low-calorie options to the freezer aisle: so consumers could polish off a pint without going overboard on calories.
While ice cream may bring on positive feelings in the moment, extra-large servings may be followed by discomfort. After all, an estimated 30 to 50 million U.S. adults are lactose intolerant, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Not to mention: "The sugar alcohols in these [low-cal ice cream] products often lead to horrible gastrointestinal distress, which in turn drives up anxiety, since the majority of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin lives in the gut," Naar explains.
If ice cream is your go-to snack in times of stress, Naar suggests enjoying it at less-tense times. "I recommend actually finding times to eat ice cream when you're not stressed first so as to not cement the brain association that anxiety [necessitates] ice cream," Naar says.
If you do find yourself spooning out a scoop to calm down, be kind to yourself. "Sometimes you'll reach for the ice cream and that's OK, but remember that food can be your ally in how you mentally feel," Naar says. "You may feel good with one or two scoops of ice cream with some peanut butter added for additional protein, and that satiates you, versus the whole pint."
It's not exactly breaking news that caffeine can bring on jitters. But why?
Caffeine is structurally similar to adenosine, a compound that builds up in the body throughout the day and causes drowsiness in the evening. "When we drink caffeine, it binds to the adenosine receptors in our brain and blocks its effects," Naar explains. "This allows dopamine to flow, bringing on feelings of intense alertness. For some people, that can show up as jitters, irritability and gastric distress."
For people prone to panic attacks, caffeine's effects are even more serious. The stimulant can bring on elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, insomnia and heightened anxiety, according to a September 2019 study in Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health.
Though caffeine tolerance is highly variable from person to person, Naar recommends keeping your intake in check for a stable mood: "If you drink coffee, I recommend no more than two cups a day and having it with food."
Also good to note: "If someone's stress or anxiety shows up as gastrointestinal upset, I often recommend pulling back on caffeinated beverages and working towards other grounding techniques to help alleviate anxiety and increase alertness," Naar says.
What to Eat Instead
When it comes to eating to beat stress, experts recommend choosing nutrient-dense foods that are rich in brain-boosting vitamins and minerals. Here are a few they love:
1. Healthy Fats
"Polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs, play a role in anti-inflammation, neurotransmitter signaling and brain development and function," Naar says. "Deficiencies in PUFAs have been associated with mental health problems."
- Soybean oil
- Canola oil
Two other omega-3s, EPA and DHA, are found in seafood. DHA is particularly useful because it produces hormones that protect neurons, Naar says.
Healthy seafood choices include:
- Crab and lobster
- Scallops, clams and oysters
"One serving of oysters provides 30 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron, over 300 percent of the RDI of vitamin B12 and over 600 percent of the RDI of zinc — all critical brain-nourishing nutrients that are essential for neurotransmitter production," Greene says.
While there's evidence that omega-3 supplementation may improve symptoms of clinical depression, try getting healthy fats from whole foods first. Aim for two to three, 4-ounce servings of seafood weekly for optimal brain health benefits.
2. Prebiotic Foods
The gut is often called the second brain, because the bacteria that hang out in our intestines are in constant communication with the brain. In fact, microbes in the intestine assist in the production of mood-regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, per Harvard Health Publishing.
Naar recommends prioritizing prebiotics for gut health benefits and, by extension, a possible mood boost. Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers that provide fuel for the good bacteria in the gut that assist in producing happy brain chemicals.
Food sources of prebiotics include:
- Dandelion greens
- Jerusalem artichokes
Intentionality around food choices matters even more when stress levels are soaring. “At times when you are stressed and anxious, you may want to think what texture you'd like,” suggests Naar. “Maybe you want to crunch down on something to relieve jaw tension.”
Eat greens, get happy? Getting more than the recommended five daily servings of fruit and veggies is associated with increased life satisfaction and decreased depressive symptoms. And even just one extra portion of fruits and vegetables per day can lead to improvements in mental wellbeing, per a January 2020 review in Nutrients.
"Leafy greens like kale, arugula, spinach and mustard greens are all powerful sources of folate, [a B vitamin] that helps aid the production of dopamine," Greene says.
Green fruits like avocado (yep, it's technically a fruit) may also be stress-busting superfoods.
"Avocados are rich in vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant and helps fight off inflammation," Greene says. "They are also rich in potassium and vitamin B6."
Another advantage of avocados? They serve up heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and fiber, which can help with emotional regulation by stabilizing blood sugar levels.
It's only human to turn to food for comfort every now and then. The problem is when food serves as our only coping mechanism for stress.
"If you're reaching for food because you are angry, anxious, lonely, tired or stressed, logically you know the food won't address the root cause of the uncomfortable feeling," Naar says. "It may [provide] a band-aid or a numbing feeling, but you're often left feeling guilty and more anxious than when you began."
Instead of wolfing down a bacon cheeseburger to (temporarily) ameliorate anxiety, Greene suggests hitting pause and posing a few basic questions to yourself, like, 'What do I need in this moment: comfort, nourishment, energy, calm?' and, 'Will this bring me closer to or further away from serenity?'
Focus on nourishing your mind and body with healthy, whole foods and engaging in feel-good behaviors like deep breathing, meditation or phoning a friend during an outdoor walk to get calm.
- Harvard Health Publishing: “What Are Ultra-Processed Foods and Are They Bad For Our Health?”
- National Library of Medicine: “Alcohol”
- Alcohol Research: “Biobehavioral Interactions Between Stress and Alcohol”
- National Institutes of Health: “Lactose Intolerance: Information for Health Care Providers”
- Journal of Neurochemistry: “The Role of Adenosine Receptors in Mood and Anxiety Disorders”
- Public Health Nutrition: “Dietary Inflammatory Index and Depression: A Meta-Analysis”
- Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health: “Panic Disorder and Chronic Caffeine Use: A Case-control Study”
- Nutritional Neuroscience: “A Mediterranean-Style Dietary Intervention Supplemented With Fish Oil Improves Diet Quality and Mental Health in People with Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial (HELFIMED)”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “The Gut-Brain Connection”
- BMC Medicine: “A Randomised Controlled Trial of Dietary Improvement for Adults With Major Depression (the ‘SMILES’ Trial)”
- Nutrients: “Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Mental Health in Adults: A Systematic Review”
- National Institutes of Health: “Omega-3 Fatty Acids”