Health Plus
July 18, 2019

Why do I eat more when I'm stressed?

If you have ever drowned your sorrows in a platter of nachos or had a stressful day send you straight into a box of chocolates, you are living proof of the connection between food and mood.  It is normal to crave high-calorie, unhealthy foods during times of stress.  Your body is storing up nutrients for its fight-or-flight mode, but the problem is that your body could mistake a bad day at the office for a life-or-death situation. Research shows that foods full of fat and sugar actually increase the likelihood of depression and anxiety, meaning those high calorie treats are actually making the situation worse. In addition, this stress and high calorie comfort foods can lead to significant weight gain causing an increased risk for chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease. You can't always control the stressful events in your life, but the good news is you can control how you fuel your body and respond to stress to help your brain through the tough times.

How does what I eat impact my mood?

It's not surprising that the foods and beverages that support optimal physical health are the same ones that support optimal mental health. What you eat can trigger chemical responses in the brain that alter behaviors and emotions.  The same way that eating sugary, high fat food can keep you feeling low, a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, protein, whole grains, and healthy fats can boost you up. By eating a healthy diet full of vital nutrients, you are supporting your body's ability to make brain chemicals responsible for better sleep, real satisfaction, less anxiety, and an overall feeling of calmness.  Research shows that eating healthy can help you stay happier and a balanced diet leads to less stress and a more stable mood supporting better mental health.

What are some good mood foods?
 

  1. Fruits and vegetables: Full of nutrients to fight inflammation and protect the brain, fruits and vegetables are linked to more happiness and better health overall.
  2. Omega-3 fatty acids: Low omega-3 levels have been linked to depression and impulsivity.  Eating healthy fats can help protect new brain cells and can contribute to a better mood. You can find Omega-3's in fish, nuts (especially walnuts), seeds, and avocado.  
  3. Dark chocolate: Dark chocolate has properties that improve mood and reduce tension and can be part of a healthy diet when enjoyed in moderation. 


What else can I do when feeling stressed?

Here are a few other stress management strategies that can help boost your emotional and biological response to stress. Pairing these mindful activities with a balanced diet can help your body feel blessed rather than stressed.

  1. Relax! Practice mindful activities such as yoga, meditation, massage therapy, and gratitude.
  2. Exercise regularly. Physical activity can stimulate certain brain chemicals that lead to a more relaxed and less anxious mood.
  3. When eating, ask yourself if you're eating for hunger or comfort. If the answer is comfort, try a good-mood food or another comforting activity such as meditation, walking, stretching, petting an animal, or deep breathing.  
  4. Plan ahead for potentially stressful activities. Try prepping healthy meals to have some food on hand after a long day! 

Practice

The next time you feel stressed and have a craving for a classic comfort food, try a good-mood food instead. 

Recipes

Walnut Trail Mix

Apple and Walnut Chicken Salad

Helpful Resources

Good Mood Foods Handout

References

  1. Food and Mood. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/mental-health-and-wellbeing/food-and-mood. Reviewed June 25, 2018.
  2. Hopf, Sarah-Marie. You Are What You Eat: How Food Affects Your Mood. Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. Published February 3, 2011.
  3. Mujcic R, J Oswald A. Evolution of Well-Being and Happiness After Increases in Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables. American Journal of Public Health. 2016 Aug;106(8):1504-10.
  4. Scott KA, Melhorn SJ, Sakai RR. Effects of Chronic Social Stress on Obesity. Curr Obes Rep. 2012 Mar; 1(1):16–25.
  5. Singh M. Mood, food, and obesity. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014;5:925.
  6. Bhandari, Smitha. Stress Management. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-management. Reviewed February 21, 2018.
  7. Yau YHC, Potenza MC. Stress and Eating Behaviors. Minerva Endocrinol. 2013 Sep; 38(3): 255–267.