Have you ever reached for a pint of ice cream when feeling overworked and overwhelmed? From struggling with deadlines to not getting enough sleep, plenty of situations can lead to stress-induced overeating. That's because it's hard to take charge and eat right in times of stress. So we pursue a moment of relief in something that is palatable, such as foods that are high in sugar, salt, fat and refined carbohydrates. But remember: This pleasure is fleeting and can spell bad news for your weight, immune system and heart health. And some foods can even make stress worse. Instead, find healthy foods and activities to cope, and steer clear of these 10 worst foods for stress.
Pretty as they are, turning to a lovely, pink Cosmo or two to take the edge off a stressful day can backfire. Too many drinks are dehydrating and can lower inhibitions, both of which can lead to overeating. Worse, studies show that relying on alcohol to relieve stress has been linked with increased risk for abusing alcohol, according to Sharon Palmer, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian. And the same applies to beer, wine, mixed drinks and other alcoholic beverages. Palmer advises enjoying alcohol in moderation; no more than one serving per day for women or two for men.
Cronuts and their counterparts (croissants and doughnuts) are high in refined carbohydrates and added sugar, which means they are digested quickly and cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels. This in turn raises levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, making your stress symptoms worse, explains Alissa Rumsey, M.S., RD, owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness. This sets up your blood sugar levels for roller-coaster ride, making it drop just as fast as it spikes. You'll end up drained, which simply won't help during times of stress.
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3. Energy Bars With Guarana
"You might realize that energy drinks and other 'buzzy' beverages aren't the best things to gulp down when you're stressed out," says Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist and author of "The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook," "but don't forget about foods that are sneaky sources of caffeine from guarana." It's touted as a more natural way to get an energy boost, but don't be fooled: The active ingredient is caffeine, and, natural or not, ingesting too much can worsen anxiety. "If you're in search of peace and tranquility, steer clear of foods that are specifically designed to give you a buzz of energy," like caffeine-infused energy bars. Common side effects of guarana include nervousness, insomnia and increased heart rate.
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4. Diet Soda
You probably know to avoid regular sugary soda, but that doesn't mean you should turn to the diet variety. "Many clients tell me they reach for diet soda when they're frazzled as a calorie-free pick-me-up," shares Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., M.A., RD, CSSD, author of "Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches With Pulses — The New Superfood." While she never recommends drinking diet beverages, she says a stressful moment may be one of the worst times to give in. "Stress itself ups the risk of glucose intolerance, and recent research shows that artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering gut bacteria, making it a double whammy to your health." Her advice? "Go for good old H2O instead."
Whether it's from the supermarket shelf or a trendy hotspot, ramen is a savory assault of sodium and refined carbohydrates that can lead to increased inflammation and bloating. It may taste good in the moment, but this combination leads to fatigue, stomachaches and feeling overly full. Feeling tired when you're already stressed is no fun. Ramen offers a lot of calories and salt, but very little fiber, vitamins or minerals.
Elizabeth Shaw, M.S., RDN, CLT, nutrition communications consultant at ShawSimpleSwaps.com, says, "prepackaged, cream-filled pastry treats have very little nutritional value," but they are common go-to foods during stress. A review published in 2014 on the relationship of eating behavior and stress found that chronic stress can lead to chronic overeating and weight gain. The study also says that "in particular, stress can enhance the propensity to eat high-calorie 'palatable' food via its interaction with central reward pathways." While intriguing, Shaw makes sure to note that more research is needed, as most of what is available now is animal research.
7. Ice Cream
When stressed, the craving for high-fat, high-carbohydrate (aka sugary) foods can be elevated for some people, according to Ginger Hultin, M.S., RDN, CSO, owner of ChampagneNutrition.com. She explains that reaching for these types of foods regularly can lead to negative health consequences over time, in turn making stress worse. According to research by Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, regularly using these types of food to cope with stress can result in fat around the midsection and even Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
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When you're feeling stressed because of everything you need to get done, you may think a cup (or five) of coffee will help you soldier through. But here's why that may not be a good idea: The link between coffee and anxiety is so common that the American Psychiatric Association has a name for it: caffeine-related anxiety. Too much coffee can mimic the feeling of anxiety in people who are predisposed to panic disorders.
9. French Fries
Pro-inflammatory foods like French fries trigger oxidative stress and make it harder for the body to recover when it's already in a state of stress. Under normal conditions, the body can clear out inflammation byproducts. But in a state of stress, eating French fries is like adding insult to injury and leads to more of these inflammation-induced compounds circulating in the body. Instead, opt for antioxidant-rich foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which can help combat stress-induced inflammation.
10. Cheese Crackers
It's hard to eat just one cheesy cracker, whether it's shaped like a square, a rocket ship or a bunny rabbit. All those crackers, cute as they are, add up to a lot of carbs and salt. Don't be fooled by the cheese flavor; the crackers don't have the same benefits of real cheese. Just turn the package around. You won't see significant amounts of protein or calcium. The refined flour and salt increase your body's water needs and can lead to dehydration-related irritability.
What Do YOU Think?
What foods do you reach for when you're stressed out? Have you figured out a better way to deal with stress, whether it's healthy foods, physical activity or something else?
Read more: Try These 21 Stress-Reducing Techniques
- What is eating you? Stress and the drive to eat.
- Mood, food, and obesity
- Eating behavior and stress: a pathway to obesity
- Stress, Food, and Inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition at the Cutting Edge
- The Link Between Stress and Alcohol
- Effects of single macronutrients on serum cortisol concentrations in normal weight men
- A new kind of energy bar.
- Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota