How Food Affects Your Stress Levels—Both Good and Bad

UPDATED: January 7, 2020
PUBLISHED: June 17, 2015

We know that what we eat matters when it comes to weight management, physical energy and our longevity. But did you know that the foods we choose affect our levels of stress, too?

Wellness experts at meQuilibrium, an online stress management solution, have mapped out 24 factors of stress—some that drag us down and others that lift us up. Drags can be work-life imbalance, feeling blah, worry and frustration. Lifts can be positive emotions, quality sleep and engagement at work.

Eating is so heavily implicated in stress that people who tend to eat when stressed and not make healthful nutrition decisions are worse on all 24 stress factors. In fact, compared with the healthiest eaters, the worst eaters have twice the stress drags in their lives and only about half the anti-stress lifts.

So, what can you do to eat more healthfully? The solution is not just about the food you put in your mouth; it has a lot to do with what thoughts you put in your head.

Think about it. We’re bombarded in the media with messages about reducing fats, upping fruits and vegetables, slashing salty and fried foods, and choosing lean proteins. So unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know what you should do.

But a Gallup poll shows that only 57 percent of us are actually getting the servings of fruits and vegetables we need. Why are we not following through on what we know we need to do?

For many people, their thinking is getting in the way. Some believe food will make them happier—“I need this comfort food to feel better” or “I can’t enjoy TV without candy.” For others, the problem is that they eat on the run, believing “I can save time by eating at my desk.”

But this thinking is faulty. We tend to overeat when we multitask because we’re not really keeping track and we’re not saving time either—because an hour later, we’re hungry again and the time we saved before we now spend looking for a vending machine.

Take a moment to think of the last time you made an unhealthy eating choice and ask yourself what was going through your mind, like a thought-feed. Are those thoughts accurate? Useful? Doing this will help you detect and challenge your thinking—helping you to consciously improve your health behaviors in a short amount of time.

And as it turns out, eating better is a gift that keeps on giving. When we start eating more healthfully, we also experience significant boosts in our ability to deflect burnout, engagement at work and quality of life. And yes—we get less stressed.

So what should you add to your grocery list? The best stress busters are foods with:

B vitamins are responsible for anxiety-easing and pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA and dopamine.

Foods include: chickpeas, lentils, yellowfin tuna, green beans, milk, plain yogurt, salmon, chicken, asparagus, oatmeal

• Magnesium produces calming neurotransmitters and can act as a muscle relaxant.

Foods include: almonds, spinach, sunflower seeds, tofu

• Omega-3s reduce inflammation, which can be triggered by stress, and a deficiency in these fatty acids has been linked to depression and mood swings.

Foods include: salmon, sardines, oysters, halibut, flax, walnuts

• Vitamin C—when you’re stressed, your body produces cortisol, which can lead to belly fat and even brain cell damage. Vitamin C may help prevent this damage and keep the immune system strong.

Foods include: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, orange juice, red and green peppers, strawberries

Food not only contributes to your stress levels—it can also make you happy. Find out what you should eat to make your next meal a “happy meal.”

Prior to founding meQuilibrium and co-authoring the book meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer and Happier, Jan Bruce was managing director and publisher at Martha Stewart Living’s Whole Living magazine. Earlier she served as CEO and co-founder of Integrative Medicine Communications, the leading digital brand in science-based complementary medicine.