- 7 Foods That Secretly Stress You Out
- Four Foods That Can Cause Stress
- The 5 Worst Foods for Your Anxiety
- 1. Alcohol
- 2. Caffeine
- 3. Aged, fermented, and cultured foods
- 4. Sneaky added sugar
- 5. Conventional nondairy creamer
- 22 Best and Worst Foods for Stress
- First…The Worst
- Ice Cream
- Chinese Take-Out
- Canned Soup
- Pressed Juices
- Wheat Bran
- Red Wine
- Diet Soda
- And Now…The Best
- Olive Oil
- Rooibos Tea
- Dark Chocolate
- Red Peppers
- Low-Fat Plain Yogurt
- Black Tea
- Why stress causes people to overeat
- Stress eating can ruin your weight loss goals – the key is to find ways to relieve stress without overeating
7 Foods That Secretly Stress You Out
Because processed meats are so common-bacon is one too!-it can be tough to get them out of our diets entirely. But you can try to focus on whole-food sources of animal products rather than processed-meat alternatives, Ansari says. “Choosing slices of freshly cooked meat, choosing leaner cuts of chicken, turkey or heart-healthy fish is a better alternative.”
Read more: Top Vegetarian Proteins
You may have heard of cortisol, a steroid hormone better known as the “stress hormone,” that is produced in response to stressful events. But did you know that your cortisol levels can spike after you sip a soda, eat a slice of cake or consume anything else packed with sugar?
“Continuous and excess intake of high-sugar foods will cause these consistently unstable blood sugar levels,” says Valdez. “This puts stress on the body, and therefore, cortisol will be released to deal with the body’s stress.” Plus, he adds, “The imbalance of blood sugars, as well as the release of cortisol, causes us to feel stressed out and anxious.”
Women should have no more than 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, of added sugar a day. (For men, the recommended cap is 38 grams, or 9 teaspoons.) “The best way to reduce sugar in our diet is to first understand where sugar lurks in our foods, which is pretty much everywhere, even in foods that don’t actually taste sweet,” says Valdez. Coffee drinks, sauces, salad dressings, yogurts and boxed cereals all contain high amounts of sugar.
Read more: How to Cut Back on Sneaky Added Sugars
“It is important to get used to reading food labels and sticking to the recommended daily amount of sugar,” Valdez says. Sugar comes in many forms, so scan for everything from cane juice to barley malt, sucrose, dextrose, corn syrup, date sugar, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, maltodextrin, rice syrup and sorghum syrup on nutrition labels in order to reduce or skip sugar intake.
Another thing that can increase your cortisol levels? Caffeine. As it increases cortisol in the body, it also “can lead to a rapid heartbeat and increased blood pressure associated with anxiety,” warns Glassman, “and can also inhibit the absorption of mood-boosting nutrients such as vitamin D and B vitamins.” Plus, caffeine can also keep you from getting a good night’s sleep-and that can lead to fatigue-induced stress.
To keep your much-needed coffee from stressing you out, limit coffee consumption to one to two cups a day-“especially caffeinated beverages with high sugar contents such as energy drinks or flavored lattes,” says Glassman. Same goes for all caffeinated beverages.
If you’re particularly sensitive to caffeine, you can also avoid it entirely, replacing coffee and other caffeinated drinks with noncaffeinated beverages like herbal tea, or even less-caffeinated and healthful beverages like green tea or matcha, Glassman recommends.
6. Fried foods
We’ve got bad news for any fried-food fiends: “Diets rich in fried food can cause decreased energy and sedentary lifestyles that can contribute to stress,” warns Ansari. “They can cause people to feel sluggish and uncomfortable and, worse-less likely to stay active.”
Rather than buying or making fried foods: “Use other forms of cooking methods such as sautéing or roasting with avocado oil,” says Ansari, “or try steaming, grilling or baking.”
“We often drink alcohol to destress after a long day,” Valdez says. There’s a reason for this: it’s technically a depressant, which means it acts as a mild sedative, making us temporarily calm. But if we drink in excess, alcohol can actually exacerbate anxiety for those who already experience it, Valdez says. Perhaps worse, because alcohol is a depressant, he says, “It can also decrease our levels of serotonin, the hormone associated with good mood, causing increased anxiety.”
So, what is excessive drinking? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines moderate drinking as one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. “More than this amount is too much for the liver to metabolize at once, which will cause excess alcohol to circulate in the blood,” Valdez says.
You can cut back on your alcohol intake by avoiding drinking triggers, and by substituting other activities such as hobbies you enjoy or exercising-or even just spending more time with friends and family without alcohol involved, Valdez says. “If you feel the need to sip something at the end of a long, tiring day, try sipping some tea with a little lemon and honey. Chamomile and lavender teas especially have been found to have calming effects.”
Some of the foods on this list taste good and we certainly don’t want you to stress yourself out by trying to avoid them. The idea is to limit them and to eat foods that make you feel good-whether that’s a kale smoothie or a bowl of ice cream from time to time.
Four Foods That Can Cause Stress
As wonderful as the holidays are, the hustle and bustle can also be stressful. Unfortunately certain foods can amplify stress. Here are four to be aware of, and why they can up your anxiety:
I can’t live without my morning cup of Joe, but sipping caffeinated drinks all day long or drinking more than your body is used to can cause your stress to simmer. Caffeine stimulates your nervous system, which means too much can lead to a rapid heartbeat and increase in blood pressure. It can also irritate your digestive system. Additionally, excess caffeine can interfere with sleep and trigger dehydration, which can zap energy and cause headaches.
A few sips of wine may make you feel relaxed, but imbibing can actually exacerbate stress. Alcohol stimulates the production of the same hormones the body produces when under stress, and research shows that stress and alcohol “feed” each other. A University of Chicago study looked at 25 healthy men who performed a stressful public speaking task and then a non-stressful control task. After each activity the subjects received fluid intravenously – either the equivalent of two alcoholic beverages or a placebo. The researchers measured effects such as anxiety and the desire for more alcohol, as well as heart rate, blood pressure, and the levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) present. They found that alcohol can actually prolong feelings of tension brought on by stress, and stress can reduce the pleasant effects of alcohol and spike cravings for more. Like caffeine, alcohol is also dehydrating and can interfere with sleep.
Not only are sugary foods typically stripped of nutrients, but the fluctuations they cause in blood sugar and insulin levels can lead to irritability and poor concentration. If you’ve ever overindulged in holiday goodies, you’ve probably experienced the not-so-merry moods swings associated with a brief sugar high, followed by a crash.
Fluid is attracted to sodium like a magnet, so when you take in surplus sodium, you’ll retain more fluid. This extra fluid puts more work on your heart, ups your blood pressure, and leads to bloating, water retention and puffiness, all of which are side effects that can drain your energy and increase your stress level.
So what’s the good news? Well, some foods can have the exact opposite effect, to reduce stress and help take the edge off. Tune into Access Hollywood Live Wednesday – I’ll be sharing some deliciously effective stress busters with Billy Bush and Kit Hoover. I’ll also share a few more not covered on the show here in Wednesday’s blog post.
Do you get stressed this time of year? Do you know that that the foods mentioned above could add to the strain? Please share your thoughts or tweet them to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine!
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she’s a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches
- By Cynthia Sass
The 5 Worst Foods for Your Anxiety
Roughly 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder. And nearly all of us have felt anxiety as a natural response to certain situations.
If you live with chronic stress or anxiety, you might spend much of your daily life managing it with tools like therapy, mindfulness, exercise, and anti-anxiety medication.
But did you know that anxiety can be triggered by certain foods we put in our bodies?
This isn’t to say that these tools and approaches aren’t necessary for tackling anxiety — they are often healthy options for any person’s lifestyle. But if anxiety is still impacting your life, it might be worth it to a glance down at your plate.
Read on for five foods that trigger anxiety and suggestions for what to eat instead.
Believe it or not, that beverage you’re drinking to quell your social anxiety is actually making it worse.
“Although it may seem like it calms your nerves, alcohol can have a negative impact on hydration and sleep, both of which can trigger anxiety symptoms when suppressed,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of “Belly Fat for Dummies.”
Alcohol changes levels of serotonin and the neurotransmitters in the brain, which makes anxiety worse. And when the alcohol wears off, you may feel even more anxious.
Drinking in moderation — or about two servings of alcohol a day — is typically safe, as long as your doctor gives you the okay.
Try Instead: There’s no real substitute for alcohol. If you like the flavor, but don’t need the side effects, consider nonalcoholic beer. Drinks that feel special, like mocktails or sparkling water with fancy bitters, can also be good replacements in social situations.
First, they want to take away your booze and now coffee? Sadly, yes.
According to the National Coffee Association, 62 percent of Americans drink coffee on a daily basis, and the average amount per day is slightly over 3 cups per coffee drinker. But our favorite morning ritual might actually be doing more harm than good.
“High levels of caffeine can not only increase anxiety and nervousness, but an also decrease the production of the feel-good chemical serotonin in the body, causing a depressed mood,” says Palinski-Wade.
Typically, caffeine is safe in low doses. But high doses can cause unpleasant effects, namely anxiety and nervousness.
A study found that participants who drank 300 milligrams of caffeine a day reported nearly twice as much stress. In Starbucks terms, a large (“grande”) coffee contains about 330 milligrams of caffeine.
Also keep in mind that several supplements and medications include caffeine and can contribute to anxious feelings, including St. John’s Wort, ginseng, and certain headache medications.
Try Instead: Matcha tea is an excellent alternative to coffee for a clean buzz minus the jitters. This is thanks to the L-theanine, which is known for its relaxing effects, without the drowsiness.
3. Aged, fermented, and cultured foods
A meat-and-cheese plate with a glass of red wine sounds incredibly relaxing, right?
In theory, yes, but according to science, not so much.
Whole foods like beef, milk, and grapes go gourmet when they’re cured, fermented, and cultured (see: steak, cheese, and wine).
But during the process, bacteria break down the food proteins into biogenic amines, one of which is histamine. Histamine is a neurotransmitter that aggravates digestion, hormones, and the cardiovascular and nervous systems. In susceptible individuals, it can trigger anxiety and insomnia.
Try Instead: To minimize histamine intolerance, always pick fresh, whole foods. Look for the “packed on” date of meat and fish. The less time it takes for it to get from where it was created to your table, the better.
4. Sneaky added sugar
There’s no way to avoid sugar 100 percent of the time, as it naturally occurs in many of the foods we love to eat, like fruit.
But added sugar is a contributor to overall anxiety.
“Added sugars cause your blood sugar to go on a roller coaster ride of spikes and crashes and with it, your energy also goes up and down,” says Palinski-Wade. “When blood sugar crashes, your mood sours and anxiety levels can spike.”
The body releases insulin to help absorb the excess glucose and stabilize blood sugar levels, but a sugar rush makes the body work too hard to get back to normal, causing the highs and lows.
Consuming large amounts of processed sugar can trigger feelings of worry, irritability, and sadness.
Foods that fall into the added sugar category that you should consider avoiding or minimizing don’t all look like desserts. Condiments like ketchup, certain salad dressings, pastas, and white bread can all contain high levels of added sugar.
Try Instead: Luckily, you don’t have to deny your sweet tooth if you give up processed sugar. Stevia, erythritol, and Yacon syrup are natural substitutes for sugar. Fill up your plate with fruits and naturally sweet vegetables, like sweet potatoes.
5. Conventional nondairy creamer
If you’re cutting the coffee, might as well cut the creamer, too. Many people these days are trying to monitor the amount of dairy they consume.
Switching to a conventional nondairy creamer might seem like one solution, but these replacements are sources of hydrogenated oils, also known as trans fats, which are packed with LDL cholesterol and can lower HDL cholesterol. These fats have been linked to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
Try Instead: If you’re drinking decaf and still want a splash of something creamy, whole foods are always the better choice. Milk and cream are better than conventional nondairy creamer. If you’re cutting dairy, consider almond milk or soy milk.
22 Best and Worst Foods for Stress
Although you tend to eat well and exercise often, are you finding that you still can’t seem to shake off the weight? Look to your stress triggers. A poor diet, busy life, and a demanding job can contribute to chronic stress levels, which can prevent you from losing weight—and may even add on the pounds. So what’s the connection between stress and your muffin top?
Here’s the deal: Back when humans had to evade predators, we developed a fight-or-flight response to help alert our body to a danger. When we’re stressed—whether it’s because we’re being chased by a mammoth or a fast-approaching project deadline—our body releases a group of hormones called glucocorticoids, whose job is to replenish the energy supply lost during the stressful encounter by revving sugar cravings and increasing fat stores. That way, your body ensures it has enough energy in case another lion crosses your path.
As a result, you get really hungry, really quickly. And you end up craving sweet and high-fat foods which both stimulate the brain to release pleasure hormones to reduce tension as well as provide a quick jolt of replenishing energy. The nail in the coffin? These high-calorie, high-fat foods not only contribute to overeating and subsequent weight gain, but they can even make your stress even worse.
While adding certain foods to your plate may actually exacerbate difficult-to-manage emotions, other foods will help you pull through with ease—without sacrificing your waistline in the process. Read on to learn what science-backed, stress-relieving, natural foods you can use to nourish your body and banish those feelings of frustration and which ones you should keep far away. Stash some of them in your snack drawer alongside these high protein snacks so you can jump over emotional hurdles with ease and get back to life refocused, refueled, and less overwhelmed.
Avoid these stress-triggering foods so you don’t exacerbate your nerves to the point of a mini meltdown.
It might cool off your mouth, but delving into a pint of ice cream won’t cool off your mind. In fact, foods that are high in refined sugar only increase stress hormones, including cortisol. That’s because your body can’t use up all that refined sugar (unless you’re in the middle of or recovering from an intense sweat sesh), so your blood glucose levels plummet rapidly. Via the “glucose counter-regulatory response”, your brain perceives low blood-glucose levels as a life-threatening situation and secretes more cortisol to trigger hunger yet again, which in turn, causes you to continue to feel stressed.
You might think that a focus-inducing coffee could help distract you from the stress of a looming project deadline, but not all cups are equal. While caffeine is known to be a mood-booster (and may lower your risk of depression) by stimulating dopamine activity, this chemical compound can also blunt the absorption of key mood-balancing nutrients like vitamin D and the B vitamins. What’s worse is when you add a few spoonfuls of sugar to your java, which can cause a post-sugar crash soon after you finish your mug, leaving you hungry, searching for sugar, and with more cortisol.
When your body switches into fight-or-flight mode during times of stress, one of the responses is to elevate your blood pressure. If you’re constantly shoveling high-sodium foods into your face, you may actually exacerbate your body’s stress response as well as worsen your body’s regulation of blood pressure, resulting in general high blood pressure or hypertension. Chinese food is one of the worst offenders of sodium-laden fare (think: teriyaki sauce and soy sauce). In fact, the gluten-free pad thai from P.F. Chang packs a whopping 5,000 mg of the stuff! Be weary of what you order on those late nights at the office when you’re grinding to finish a project due at 8 A.M. the next morning. Use our guide, Eat This, Not That! For Takeout Addicts for help.
These baked twists are a double-edged sword. Not only will their high sodium levels bolster your blood pressure, but their fast-digesting, refined carbs can actually increase anxiety. That’s because, without the digestion-slowing fiber typically found in whole-grain, complex carbs, pretzels made from simple carbs will spike glucose levels—which then raises the stress hormone cortisol. Beyond their satisfying crunch, pretzels are quick-digesting carbs that only briefly lift mood before sending it (along with your satiety) back to low levels.
Sure it’s convenient and fast—what we typically look for when it comes to satisfying those stress cravings—but avoid this vehicle of food at all costs. Bisphenol A (BPA) is an endocrine-disrupting, hormone-mimicking chemical used in most canned food liners and plastic containers which can throw off important mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters by significantly altering genes in the stress-mediating portion of the brain, according to research. (It can also skew your genes toward obesity.) One study out of the University of California–Berkeley even found that children exposed to BPA in early childhood were more likely to have anxiety issues.
Overturning your anxious mood with a healthy option is a good idea, but don’t grab a freshly pressed juice. Shocker, right? But hear us out. Unlike whole fruits, juices are devoid of slow-digesting fiber and loaded with both glucose and fructose. The result is a blood sugar spike from the glucose that triggers a rush of the stress hormone adrenaline, and the fructose can alter how the brain responds to stress on a genetic level, according to a recent study. As a general rule, avoid all juices—even those naturally sweetened with fruit. If water is boring to you, then try one of these detox waters instead!
Soy is a triple threat when it comes to stress. For starters, because over 90 percent of soy products in America are GMO, most soy-based products you eat will be treated with glyphosate, an herbicide shown to cause nutrient deficiencies, especially in mood-stabilizing minerals. Add that to soy’s high levels of anti-nutrient phytic acid, which can’t be diminished by traditional soaking and sprouting methods—only through fermentation can these levels be decreased. Lastly, soy is also high in copper, a mineral linked to anxious behavior. If you must eat soy, stick to fermented varieties like tempeh and miso, which are easier to digest.
It may be touted by health experts for its impressive fiber content, but wheat bran gets a black mark in the anti-anxiety department for its high concentration of phytic acid. This anti-nutrient binds to important mood minerals like zinc and magnesium, limiting their absorption. Soaking and sprouting can help reduce levels of phytic acid, which is found primarily in whole grains and dried beans; so make the extra step a staple of your kitchen when prepping these foods.
Wine-ing down with alcohol may only wind you up more. While a glass of vino or whiskey on the rocks may feel like it initially helps to calm an anxious mind, research suggests the happy hour strategy may backfire long-term. A few drinks before bed can cause sleep problems, blood sugar swings, and dehydration—all things which can increase stress hormones even more.
That pop! of the soda can might be enough to quell your stress levels, but stop there. Aspartame, an artificial sweetener that’s found in many diet sodas, has been found to block the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This can cause all manner of neuro maladies including headaches, insomnia, changes in mood—and yes, even stress. It’s not just aspartame, either; look out for NutraSweet and Equal as well to protect your mental well-being. Find out more about these sugar alternatives in Every Popular Added Sweetener—Ranked!.
And Now…The Best
There are a number of healthy options that have been scientifically proven to alter brain chemistry and hormones to help your body deal with stress more easily. Reach for one of these picks when a stress-induced craving hits, and fit them into your diet in general to both improve your mood and waistline.
If you’ve been holding your palms on your temples all too often, you might be coming up short on certain nutrients. Research suggests that folic acid deficiency can suppress the production of S-adenosylmethionine, a naturally occurring compound that helps produce serotonin and dopamine. Compounded with the fact that when you’re chronically stressed, your brain begins to produce excess stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and fewer neurotransmitters associated with relaxation and happiness, like dopamine and serotonin, you’ve got a problem. Luckily, scientists believe that improving folic acid status can help reinstate happy hormone levels. To reap the benefits, whip up a three-cup spinach salad and you’ll reach nearly half of the daily recommended intake of folate for both men and women. For more sources of folate, try beans, chickpeas, lentils, asparagus, avocado, or broccoli.
Counteract that stress-induced rise in blood pressure with an olive-oil drizzled salad. A report by UC Davis found that just two tablespoons a day could significantly decrease systolic blood pressure in as little as three weeks. A separate study found that people who ate olive oil daily enjoyed a bigger boost of the happy hormone serotonin than those eating other types of fat. Researchers speculate the benefits are from EVOO’s minimal processing, which leaves higher levels of health-promoting phenols. In case you didn’t know, phenolic content diminishes with time, and particularly when exposed to heat and light, so EVOO should be stored in a cool dark place and used within a couple months of opening a container—not left out on your counter. Find out what other foods you’re eating wrong and missing out on important nutrients!
When you’re stressed out, the all-important, mood-regulating neurotransmitter known as serotonin takes a hit. And when you find out that carbs play a role in helping the serotonin building blocks cross into your brain where they can be assembled into the feel-good hormone, you realize that your stress-induced carb craving makes sense. But the key to satisfying those cravings is reaching for slow-digesting, complex carbs like whole grains to promote stable blood sugar levels rather than the refined carbs that cause spikes and dips. Steel cut oats are closest to whole-grain status and also provide a source of tryptophan, the amino acid precursor to serotonin. Plus, the vitamin B6 found in oats is important to keep your brain focused and energized to keep you from feeling like shirking away to cool off from your rage with a nap. Get the most out of your meal by pairing your overnight oats with the mood-boosting nutrients found in nuts or eggs.
Regularly consuming fatty fish like salmon and tuna will help you boost your mood. These fish are loaded with omega-3s, a mood-boosting fatty acid that may make it easier for serotonin—a chemical that makes you feel happier—to pass through cell membranes and multiply. An added benefit? This fatty acid can help decrease inflammation, a common side effect of chronic stress.
These bright fruits are not only one of the top high fiber foods, they’re also packed with vitamin C (ounce-for-ounce even more than oranges), an antioxidant which has been proven to help people cope with stressful situations. According to one study, levels of cortisol (one of the hormones produced during stress) decreased rapidly in subjects given vitamin C supplement, and the blood pressure of the study participants returned to normal more quickly in the vitamin C group than in the control group.
Sick of being crabby? Forget the happy hour cocktail and steep yourself a cup of rooibos tea instead. The red brew is rich in a powerful flavanoid called aspalathin. Researchers say this fat-fighting compound reduces levels of stress hormones (which trigger hunger and fat storage) and can even inhibit adipogenesis—the formation of new fat cells—by as much as 22 percent. Sounds like more than enough of a reason to sip a cup!
Yes, really! But the key word is dark. Milk and white chocolate are full of sugar (which would only pull you down and make you frown) and contain fewer cocoa solids, the ingredient full of antioxidants which researchers have found can help stimulate the euphoria-inducing chemicals that real chocolate does, especially serotonin, working to buffer the effects of stress. Make sure to grab a bar that’s higher than 70 percent cacao—our guide to the Best and Worst Chocolates should help.
We know polishing off a sleeve of cookies might feel like the best option after a rough day, but you’re better off crunching on a red pepper. That’s because red peppers boast the highest amount of vitamin C in the produce aisle—just one cup has over three times the recommended daily intake of the nutrient! Though you might know it as the immune vitamin, the antioxidant properties of vitamin C also fights off free radicals and lingering stress hormones. Snack on slices raw dipped in hummus or add the veggie to a stir-fry to reap the benefits.
Switch those crunchy chips for nuts to curb your munchies and relieve stress. Most nuts (two standouts are pumpkin seeds and almonds) are high in magnesium—a vital nutrient for our body’s natural stress coping mechanism that the average American isn’t getting enough of. Common symptoms of a magnesium deficiency are an inability to manage stress and the physical ramifications of that like high blood pressure, insomnia, fatigue, or loss of appetite. What’s more, nuts are also rich in mood-boosting selenium; the amino-acid, serotonin-precursor tryptophan; and depression-relieving omega 3 fatty acids. So we’re giving you the go-ahead for that PB&J.
Feeling a bit tense after a fall out with a friend? Take out your angst by cracking some vitamin-D-rich eggs and boost your mood in the process. (FYI, a three-egg omelet will serve up over a third of your daily recommended intake of the nutrient.) Exactly how the sunshine vitamin works to improve mood isn’t yet fully understood, but one theory is that the nutrient increases levels of feel-good hormones, serotonin and dopamine, in the brain. (Plus, eggs are full of tryptophan, an amino acid needed for serotonin production.) Another way these protein-rich foods pack a de-stressing punch? The slow-digesting protein and fat will stabilize blood sugar levels post stressful situation. Pair your eggs with a piece of whole-grain bread to increase levels of serotonin further as carbs are necessary to facilitate the entrance of tryptophan into the brain.
Low-Fat Plain Yogurt
Next time you’re pulling your hair out, grab a cup of plain yogurt. This breakfast staple serves up a hefty dose of lysine and arginine, two amino acids that a study published in the journal Biomedical Research found work together to decrease feelings of anxiety and stress hormone levels. For an added punch, grab a container that has “live active cultures,” which signifies the presence of probiotics. Studies have found that proper gut health plays a critical role in influencing emotions such as anxiety, depression, and stress through our “gut-brain axis.” In fact, a small study by UCLA researchers found an association between consumption of probiotic yogurt and reduction in stress hormone level elevation following an emotional task.
Switch your black cuppa joe for the tea variety to ease your mind. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the journal Psychopharmacology found that those who drank black tea were better able to manage stress than their herbal-sipping counterparts. Not only did black tea drinkers have lower levels of cortisol, their bodies were also able to lower stress hormone levels back to normal and relax more quickly after a nail-biting situation than non-black tea drinkers. Researchers speculate that ingredients such as catechins, polyphenols, and flavonoids in tea leaves may be at play, as they have previously been found to affect neurotransmitters in the brain. Be sure to steep your own cup at home—and avoid these antioxidant-deficient 26 Absolute Worst Bottled Teas in America.
Get the New Book!
Want to lose 10, 20, even 30 pounds—all without dieting?! Get your copy of Eat This, Not That: The Best (& Worst) Foods in America!, and learn how to indulge smarter and lose weight fast!
When we experience stress on a daily basis, our immune, endocrine, and nervous systems are adversely affected. In fact, stress is one of the biggest risk factors for developing chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, inflammation, chronic pain, and cardiovascular conditions.
The good news is there are strategies that have been scientifically proven to help diminish the harmful effects of stress, like meditating and eating right.
Unfortunately, when times get tough, most of us instead head to the candy aisle or drive-thru, engaging in a downward spiral that only aggravates our body’s response to stress.
As a clinical health psychologist, I know that the food we consume has a powerful effect on our minds and bodies. And poor nutrition can only make stress worse. Here are the five foods I recommend avoiding when stressed out:
1. Processed foods
That includes anything that isn’t natural, has preservatives, or comes in boxes. Food in packages tends to be loaded with preservatives and unnatural ingredients. And by consuming these foods, we’re feeding our minds and bodies with nutrients that actually impair our ability to tackle stress.
A grocery shopping trick that I use to avoid processed foods is to stay as close to the produce aisles as I can. Avoid the middle aisles of your store, which usually contain canned and boxed foods, and you’ll notice yourself sticking to whole foods.
2. White flour products
White flour, found in white bread and pastries, can be extremely inflammatory. And inflammatory foods tend to put a strain on our digestive system, acting as an additional stressor.
I recommend substituting white flour products for whole wheat. If you find that wheat products affect your gut — a food sensitivity test can help you find out — opt for gluten-free options prepared with almond or coconut flour.
Alcohol affects our liver health and can disrupt hormones. Although you may think it helps you relax, it actually acts as a depressant in your nervous system and disrupts your deep sleep by increasing cortisol levels in the body. And with less quality sleep, you become less able to successfully manage stress.
If cutting out alcohol completely sounds too hard, a good option is ordering a wine spritzer at your next happy hour — it contains club soda and less alcohol. Remember to hydrate well, as well as sweat off the toxins that alcohol can put in your body.
4. Excessive caffeine
I know what you’re thinking: Don’t take away my morning coffee! Don’t worry, your morning coffee is OK. Caffeine isn’t necessarily our enemy. But like everything, when consumed in excess, it could have harmful effects, including disrupting our adrenals and nervous system.
By limiting coffee and tea to one to two cups per day and avoiding all caffeine in the afternoon, you’ll be better able to stay calm in stressful situations and enjoy a good night’s rest.
Sugar is one of the most difficult things to avoid when we’re stressed. Our bodies crave comfort foods like ice cream and chocolate-covered doughnuts. And there’s actually a physiological reason behind it: When we’re stressed, our cortisol levels rise. High cortisol levels then send a message to our brain that we need sugar to sustain our energy in case we need to fight or flee from a life-threatening situation.
But I’m guessing that big 5 p.m. meeting isn’t actually life-threatening. So, next time your sugar craving creeps in, opt for dark chocolate or peanut butter on whole-wheat toast instead.
Stressed Out? What You Should Eat and Do Instead
When you’re under stress, not only should you avoid the harmful foods above, but you should also ramp up consumption of the right ones. Be sure to drink plenty of water and get the necessary vitamins and minerals that have been proven to help fight stress:
Why stress causes people to overeat
Stress eating can ruin your weight loss goals – the key is to find ways to relieve stress without overeating
Updated: July 18, 2018Published: February, 2012
There is much truth behind the phrase “stress eating.” Stress, the hormones it unleashes, and the effects of high-fat, sugary “comfort foods” push people toward overeating. Researchers have linked weight gain to stress, and according to an American Psychological Association survey, about one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale.
In the short term, stress can shut down appetite. The nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine helps trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold.
But if stress persists, it’s a different story. The adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn’t go away — or if a person’s stress response gets stuck in the “on” position — cortisol may stay elevated.
Stress eating, hormones and hunger
Stress also seems to affect food preferences. Numerous studies — granted, many of them in animals — have shown that physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both. High cortisol levels, in combination with high insulin levels, may be responsible. Other research suggests that ghrelin, a “hunger hormone,” may have a role.
Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that dampens stress related responses and emotions. These foods really are “comfort” foods in that they seem to counteract stress — and this may contribute to people’s stress-induced craving for those foods.
Of course, overeating isn’t the only stress-related behavior that can add pounds. Stressed people also lose sleep, exercise less, and drink more alcohol, all of which can contribute to excess weight.
Why do people stress eat?
Some research suggests a gender difference in stress-coping behavior, with women being more likely to turn to food and men to alcohol or smoking. And a Finnish study that included over 5,000 men and women showed that obesity was associated with stress-related eating in women but not in men.
Harvard researchers have reported that stress from work and other sorts of problems correlates with weight gain, but only in those who were overweight at the beginning of the study period. One theory is that overweight people have elevated insulin levels, and stress-related weight gain is more likely to occur in the presence of high insulin.
How much cortisol people produce in response to stress may also factor into the stress–weight gain equation. In 2007, British researchers designed an ingenious study that showed that people who responded to stress with high cortisol levels in an experimental setting were more likely to snack in response to daily hassles in their regular lives than low-cortisol responders.
How to relieve stress without overeating
When stress affects someone’s appetite and waistline, the individual can forestall further weight gain by ridding the refrigerator and cupboards of high-fat, sugary foods. Keeping those “comfort foods” handy is just inviting trouble.
Here are some other suggestions for countering stress:
Meditation. Countless studies show that meditation reduces stress, although much of the research has focused on high blood pressure and heart disease. Meditation may also help people become more mindful of food choices. With practice, a person may be able to pay better attention to the impulse to grab a fat- and sugar-loaded comfort food and inhibit the impulse.
Exercise. While cortisol levels vary depending on the intensity and duration of exercise, overall exercise can blunt some of the negative effects of stress. Some activities, such as yoga and tai chi, have elements of both exercise and meditation.
Social support. Friends, family, and other sources of social support seem to have a buffering effect on the stress that people experience. For example, research suggests that people working in stressful situations, like hospital emergency departments, have better mental health if they have adequate social support. But even people who live and work in situations where the stakes aren’t as high need help from time to time from friends and family.
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.