Strategic Diets: What to Eat When You’re Stressed Out

Step away from the Ben and Jerry’s.

Welcome to Strategic Diets, a deep dive into specific nutritional needs for your desired outcome—from fitness goals to personal aspirations. 

After a jam-packed day at the office, sprinting to meetings around the city, and battling crowds on your commute home, the first thing you want to do is dive head first into a pint of cookie dough ice cream.

But while the immediate effects may seem soothing, this is the last thing you want to put on your plate.

While there isn’t one food that will make stress magically disappear, certain nutrients will help combat the symptoms that occur in response to a stressful situation (while others will exacerbate them).

Stress creates a response in the body that increases blood pressure, lowers your mood, and hinders your immune system among other things. By choosing foods that help combat these symptoms, we can improve our emotional and physical state and protect ourselves from the negative side effects of a stressful situation.

Your Stress-Busting Diet Game Plan

Stress triggers a response in the body that can manifest itself in your mental and physical health. Here are some of the common side effects of encountering a stressful situation (hello working until 10 pm to meet a last minute work deadline) and the dietary choices that can help ease the pain.

Don’t Give in to Cravings

The longer your to do list gets, the more tempting the vending machine starts to look, but resist. This is going to be easier said than done: When we’re under a lot of stress we tend to reach for comfort foods, this is because stressful events cause our cortisol levels to rise, and in result, cause food cravings. In women those cravings tend to be strongest for sweets, while men gravitate towards meal-related comfort foods (such as steak and casseroles), according to research published in Physiology & Behavior.

In fact, 40 percent of adults reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods as a result of stress, according to the American Psychological Association.

While the immediate sense of calm that comes over you when you dive into a bag of white cheddar Cheez-Its (oh, that’s just us?) can feel like your eating the stress away, that quick fix will be short lived. Processed and refined foods will only wreak havoc on your blood-sugar levels, which will have you feeling even worse. Plus, stress has been linked to abdominal fat, so the munchies aren’t going to help your waistline in the long term either. Moral of the story: Avoid simple carbs and sugar, and prevent erratic mood swings that will exacerbate stress symptoms.

Boost Your Mood

When we’re stressed, we’re usually not in the best of spirits. So choose foods that can provide a mood boost (as opposed to those that will cause mood swings). A study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that people tended to feel calmer, happier and more energetic on days they ate more fruits and veggies. Of course, this is a classic chicken or the egg scenario: did produce make people happier, or did happier people eat more produce?

But what you eat does “affect the balance of some of the neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which play a role in mood and appetite control,” wrote Susan McQuillan M.S., RDN. “In turn, the balance of these neurotransmitters can affect the way you feel. Low levels of serotonin in the brain are associated with both depression and anger.”

Low-glycemic carbohydrates—like whole grains and carbohydrate-rich vegetables like sweet potatoes and squash—can help boost the production of the feel-good chemical serotonin.

Lower Your Blood Pressure

One bodily reaction to a stressful situation is elevated blood pressure. When we are under chronic stress, these repeated surges of blood pressure increase plaque build up in the arteries which increases risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular issues. So incorporating foods that will work to naturally lower blood pressure is a smart move.

“Diet has a huge effect on improving blood pressure. Research on the DASH diet found a clear correlation between a diet high in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy to lower blood pressure,” said  Erin Palinski Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. “It’s believed that the key nutrients calcium, potassium and magnesium, in which the DASH diet is rich in, along with the high levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, may help to lower blood pressure.” The diet also focuses on whole grains, lean meats, fish and poultry, and nuts and beans, making it high fiber and low to moderate in fat.

Strengthen Immune Function

Chronic stress inhibits our immune system; luckily certain foods can bolster its defenses. A big part of this is taking care of your gut healthResearch shows that 70 percent of your entire immune system resides inside your gastrointestinal tract.

Probiotics are a natural choice to boost gut health and reduce the body’s inflammatory response. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that the bacteria shortened the duration of a cold by two days and led to a 34 percent decrease in symptoms.

Not only will you be strengthening your immune system, but given the complex line of communication between the gut and our brain, probiotics may also help us better handle certain emotions. A UCLA study revealed that consuming probiotics in yogurt reduced brain activity in areas that handle emotion, including stress, when compared to people who consumed yogurt without probiotics or no yogurt at all. Another study found that the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus had a marked effect on GABA levels in certain brain regions and lowered the stress-induced hormone corticosterone, resulting in reduced anxiety- and depression-related behavior.

Nutrients That May Help Combat Stress

In addition to including foods that help improve specific symptoms associated with the stress response, there are certain nutrients that have been shown to help reduce the effects of stress on the body.

  • Vitamin C: “Vitamin C may help to return stress hormones to normal faster after a stressful situation,” said Palinski-Wade. A study published in Psycho-Pharmacology confirmed this by asking people to give a speech, followed by completing hard math problems. Those who had been given vitamin C had lower blood pressure and lower levels of cortisol after the stressful scenario. Added bonus: vitamin C is an important nutrient when it comes to strengthening your immune system.
  • Zinc: Low levels of zinc have been linked to both anxiety and depression, so it can help to up your dosage when you’re having a particularly stressful week. A study published in Nutrition and Metabolic Insights found that when people who were diagnosed with both anxiety symptoms (irritability, lack of ability to concentrate) and deficient zinc levels were given zinc supplements, the patients saw a 31 percent decrease in anxiety. The mineral also functions as an antioxidant in the body and plays a key role in the functioning of the immune system.
  • Complex Carbs: Complex carbohydrates cause your brain to produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical that helps promote relaxation, the antithesis to stress. Plus, it’s lower glycemic than the refined comfort foods you may be tempted to turn to, which will keep blood sugar levels—and mood—stable.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fatty acids are important in brain function and improve neurotransmitter activity, which helps combat depression and prevent stress hormones from peaking, said Palinski-Wade. A study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that participants who took omega-3 supplements had a 20 percent reduction in anxiety compared to those given placebo pills. And studies published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that omega-3 fish oils can ease depression and mood disorders and lower suicide risk.
  • Tea: Drinking a warm mug of tea is a way to practice active mindfulness practice, which is a great tactic for de-stressing. Chamomile may be the best choice: A study from the University of Pennsylvania four that chamomile supplements led to a significant drop in anxiety symptoms. Plus, the tea has also been linked to better sleep, which is negatively effected by stress levels. Holy basil tea is another stress-busting option. Studies have shown that holy basil has soothing, painkilling powers that help people who suffer from stress, restlessness and cardiac complaints.

Take Other Steps to Combat (and Reduce) Stress

Avoiding stress in the first place is the smartest approach—especially since chronic stress is linked to depression, anxiety, decrease in life satisfaction, conflict in relationships, poor job performance, and physical symptoms like body pain, cardiovascular difficulties, diabetes, low energy, headaches, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, loss of sexual desire or ability, and upset stomach. Here are ways to prevent daily stressors from causing long-term damage.

Once you’re already feeling the stress, there are some things you can do beyond your diet to reduce it, like cutting back on technology and observing nature. Here are some more science-backed ways to fight stress.