The evidence is mounting: What you eat can directly affect stress and anxiety

Key Takeaways

  • Experts say what you eat has a lot to do with your mental well-being.
  • Sugar, processed carbohydrates, and what have you no Eating can contribute to stress.
  • You can indulge in your favorite foods by eating more nutrient-dense foods.

After you eat your favorite burger and fries or deep-dish pizza, you may notice the initial satiety you feel after a while. “There’s evidence that diet affects stress, including depression and anxiety, as well as our body’s stress response,” says Kaleigh McMurdy, MCN, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian in Lubbock, Texas, and author of All-Purpose in the Raw. spokesperson Sugar Company

For example, a study published in 2021 Nutrition through treatment Australia’s Edith Cowan University found that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is associated with less stress.

Among 8,600 participants, those who ate at least 470 grams of fruits and vegetables per day had 10% lower stress levels than those who ate less than 230 grams. The researchers believe their research supports the link between a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and mental well-being.

McMurdy agrees. “Mood is controlled by the brain, and to function properly, the brain needs optimal fuel from dietary nutrients,” she says.

Mood is also influenced by the microbiome in the digestive tract (or gut), he adds.

“(This is) why we’re seeing more emphasis on gut health than in mental health. Nutritional deficiencies and inflammation can be contributors to anxiety and stress, and what we eat can help or harm these areas,” says McMurdy.

What foods negatively affect mental well-being?

The biggest food culprits that contribute to stress are caffeine, sugar, alcoholic beverages and not eating at all, says Terlin Sale, PhD, psychotherapist and brain health expert.

He explains that, “Caffeine-containing foods or drinks can increase your heart rate, make you jittery, have trouble sleeping, etc. Although caffeine doesn’t cause anxiety, it can certainly contribute to it.”

While many health professionals point to common culprits like sugar and processed carbohydrates as causes of stress, McMurdy believes it’s linked to no to eat

Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD

Mood is controlled by the brain, and to function properly, the brain needs optimal fuel from dietary nutrients

— Kaleigh McMurdy, MCN, RDN, LD

Although studies have shown that processed foods, fast foods and foods high in sugar can increase depression and anxiety compared to diets like the Mediterranean diet, he notes that many of them fail to explain why.

“While most diets consist of highly refined foods that are largely nutrient-poor, there is little room for nutrient-dense foods high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, whole grains, and legumes. So, while highly processed foods may not directly cause bad moods, they can certainly contribute when they make up most of the food,” says McMurdy.

Understanding how to regulate blood sugar or reactive hypoglycemia, which is low blood sugar that occurs after eating, can also cause stress and anxiety, Sale said.

“It’s like a roller coaster ride for your mood. When blood sugar gets out of control, your body will eventually shut down the adrenaline and now you’re in fight-or-flight mode, which is your anxious brain,” she says. “With that said, a high-sugar diet will control your blood sugar. will and contribute to stress and anxiety.”

What foods can improve mental well-being?

Whole foods, protein, and healthy fats can positively affect your mental health, Sale says.

“Your brain’s neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, etc.) depend on amino acids from protein and nutritional cofactors (vitamins A, D, C, B, etc.) from other nutrient-dense foods. That’s why when you’re trying to improve your mood That’s when it’s important to evaluate your nutrition,” she says

McMurdy adds, try adding colorful fruits and vegetables, fatty fish, such as salmon, olive oil, nuts, legumes and whole grains. “It’s important to include a variety of these foods in daily meals and snacks, not just occasionally,” she says.

In addition to a Mediterranean-style pattern, he notes that fermented foods and other foods that nourish the microbiome, such as yogurt and kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and tempeh “can contribute to a better mood.”

Ways to relieve food-related stress and anxiety during the holidays

The holiday season is often associated with eating more or eating differently than you normally would.

“A lot of stress around food during the holidays can be self-inflicted by trying to limit your holiday choices and/or restricting overall food intake in anticipation of too many foods around,” says McMurdy.

Trying to limit yourself can lead to low blood sugar and hunger-induced deprivation causing a vicious cycle of anxiety and irritability, which McMurdy says can lead to guilt, followed by more restriction.

Instead of restricting yourself from eating your favorite foods, she recommends eating nutritious meals and snacks throughout the day and allowing yourself a meal or two that you crave.

“Given enough nutrients already, one or two Christmas cookies won’t cause an out-of-control sugar binge or any ill health effects,” says McMurdy.

If you can’t eat sugar for health reasons, she suggests using a baking-friendly sugar substitute in your favorite recipes or natural sources of sweeteners like fruit, honey or monk fruit.

Terlin Sale, Ph.D

Foods or drinks containing caffeine can increase your heart rate, cause jitters, make it difficult to sleep, etc. Although caffeine does not cause anxiety, it can certainly contribute to it.

– Terlin Sale, Ph.D

Additionally, he says, dairy products such as sour cream or swapping out cultured yogurt or kefir for the butter portion in certain recipes can contribute more nutrition.

“If you have a favorite main dish that’s heavy on meat, try swapping out fish for that protein, or making a ‘mix’ of ground meat and mushrooms,” says McMurdy.

Sale recommends eating a protein-rich meal every three hours to keep your blood sugar under control and reducing or avoiding alcoholic beverages to avoid experiencing an adrenaline rush and poor sleep.

“But, most importantly, don’t deprive yourself of goodies. Instead, use those treats in conjunction with high-quality socialization,” says Sale.

You don’t have to make perfect food choices

It’s ‘perfectly okay’ to not be perfect when it comes to eating, says Sale. “We live in a world that emphasizes perfection, especially when it comes to food. Instead, choose choices that fit into the ‘good, better, best’ category and some days are just ‘good enough,'” she says.

Once you get the hang of this approach, he says you can start improving your nutrition in a ‘not many times’ state. “Also, start somewhere, like stabilizing blood sugar by eating protein every 3 hours and skipping meals. Then, you can build from there,” Sell says.

What does this mean for you?

Eating certain foods can affect your mood and overall mental well-being. There are ways to make food choices that are best for your mental health while still enjoying some of your favorite foods.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the information contained in our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.

  1. Radavelli-Bagatini S, Blakenhorst LC, Sim M, et al. Fruit and vegetable consumption is inversely associated with perceived stress across the lifespan in adults. Nutrition by treatment. 2021;40(5):2860-2867.

  2. Carvalho KMB, Ronca DB, Michels N, et al. Does the Mediterranean diet protect against stress-induced inflammatory activation in European adolescents? Helena studies. Nutrient substances. 2018;10(11):1770.

By Kathy Cassata

Kathy Cassata is a freelance writer specializing in health, mental health, medical news and inspirational stories.

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