In today’s fast-paced world, stress and anxiety have become all too common. The demanding nature of our lives often leaves us feeling overwhelmed, impacting our mental and physical well-being. While there is no magic solution to eliminate stress entirely, adopting a well-balanced diet can play a significant role in managing stress levels and promoting overall happiness
The Ultimate Expert-Approved Diet Plan for a Happier, Less-Stressed You
While short-term stress can lead to bothersome headaches, stomach cramps, weight gain, and more bouts of cold and flu, chronic, unremitting stress affects every part of your body, from your digestive and reproductive systems to your immune system. Left unaddressed, chronic stress can even increase your risk of conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression, and anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
That’s right: Stress isn’t just making you grumpier — it may also be making you sicker.
Today, after living through the COVID-19 pandemic, transitioning to working from home, and facing increased work and family demands, many of us are more stressed than we’ve ever been. With those sudden and inconvenient changes can come a whole lot of stress, which at times feels unrelenting.
Even in prepandemic times, Americans were stressed. For Everyday Health’s United States of Stress survey in 2019, of the nearly 6,700 people queried, 35 percent rated their stress at 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 7 over the previous month. We also asked respondents how they deal with stress, and among the various coping mechanisms they could choose from, 22 percent of people reported turning to food.
How Your Diet Can Affect Stress Levels, for Better or Worse
The good news? Whenever you feel you have little control, one thing you can get a grip on is your diet choices. And these choices can make or break your stress levels.
Let’s put it this way: Those cookies and potato chips aren’t doing you any favors. Ali Miller, RD, CDCES, an integrative dietitian in Houston and the author of The Anti-Anxiety Diet, says that refined carbs spike blood sugar then cause it to crash, increasing stress and anxiety. Healthy foods — including healthy fats such as avocados, eggs, and walnuts — have the opposite effect, creating a “favorable hormone signaling in the brain, which supports satiety, mood regulation, and sleep and energy balance,” Miller says.
An urge to make a beeline for the vending machine when stress is sky-high isn’t your fault. When you’re stressed, your body pumps out hormones that rev your appetite and send your cravings for unhealthy comfort foods soaring, according to Harvard Medical School. Meanwhile, stress can lead to a loss of lean muscle mass, which decreases your metabolism and increases your risk of weight gain.
Of course, that’s only part of the equation. From sleep, diet, and exercise to work, family, and romantic relationships, stress can take a toll on every aspect of your life.
Fortunately, there’s a solution — and we can show you the way.
To build the ultimate stress-busting diet, we came up with a detailed food list and 14-day meal plan that’s specifically balanced to meet all your nutritional needs while calming your stress hormones, increasing feel-good hormones, and keeping your energy high. We also offer some expert-backed tips and tricks that we hope will help you tame your stressors once and for all.
Preparing healthy food may be the last thing you want to do when you’re pressed for time and strung out. But rest assured that your time and effort will pay off in a big way — and you’ll likely notice the benefits of this plan when your stress levels are at their highest. What you’ll potentially be getting out of this plan: more energy, a calmer mind, a boosted immune system, and maybe even a slimmer waistline. Need we say more?
The Best and Worst Foods Proven to Affect Stress Management
When stress strikes, the body releases the hormones cortisol, insulin, and ghrelin, which can ramp up hunger and cravings for unhealthy foods, notes Harvard Medical School. If the stressful event continues, those hormones remain elevated, increasing levels of another hormone, called leptin, which helps your body recognize when it’s full. These hormonal changes can raise your risk for a condition called leptin resistance, which research suggests is linked to obesity.
Fortunately, knowing which foods to fuel up on (and which to skip) can help you get your stress levels under control. Next, learn about the research that suggests how.
Foods to Eat When You’re Stressed
Warm, Soothing Foods
For conquering stress, a food’s nutrient profile may be just as important as how it makes you feel. Take a calming, warm cup of tea, for instance, says Sandra Meyerowitz, MPH, RD, an online nutrition coach and the owner of Nutrition Works in Louisville, Kentucky, who specializes in food sensitivities, food allergies, and nutrigenomics. Sipping a warm drink has a soothing effect regardless of the flavor — but certain herbs have been shown to have a relaxing effect on their own, Meyerowitz says. For example, one study suggests chamomile may reduce anxiety by helping rewire the body’s stress response and increasing the production of the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine.
Usually, dessert isn’t a good choice when you’re stressed, but dark chocolate may be an exception. This treat can reduce stress in two ways — via its chemical impact and its emotional impact. Chocolate feels like such an indulgence that it can be a real treat to simply savor a piece of it, and that feeling alone can reduce stress, says Meyerowitz. Dark chocolate, which is also rich in antioxidants, lowers stress hormones in the body, according to one study in which participants ate about 1.5 ounces (oz) of the treat per day for two weeks. Just be sure to avoid excess calories in your diet by not overindulging, Meyerowitz advises. The calories in dark chocolate can add up quickly, so stick to a 1 oz serving or less per day and choose chocolate that’s at least 60 percent cacao.
Low-carb keto diet followers, take note: The right carbs can act as stress busters! According to MIT, carbohydrates can increase levels of serotonin, a chemical in the body that helps boost mood and reduce stress. More serotonin means more concentration and a more productive workday. But picking the right carbs is critical. Refined carbs — such as chips, cookies, and crackers — are tied to inflammation, stress, and depression, according to one study. These carbs may also raise your blood pressure, straining heart health, suggests a review, and lead you to overeat later in the day, other research suggests. Complex carbs, on the other hand, can do wonders for your stress levels because they digest more slowly and keep blood sugar levels more even, according to Harvard Medical School. Sources of complex carbs include sweet potatoes and whole grains (such as whole-grain bread, quinoa, brown rice, and oats).
For a quick pick-me-up, skip Starbucks and reach for a banana instead. The yellow, potassium-rich fruit contains the mood-boosting chemical dopamine, along with magnesium, levels of which plummet during stressful times. A preliminary study found that magnesium deficiency increased depression and anxiety symptoms in mice. Similarly, a review in the December 2020 Nutrients noted a direct link between magnesium deficiency and increased stress levels. Bananas are furthermore a rich source of certain B vitamins, such as vitamin B6, which helps the nervous system run correctly, and can decrease stress and fatigue, according to a study that looked at the use of high-dose B-complex vitamins. An added perk: The potassium bananas offer can help lower high blood pressure, according to Harvard Medical School.
Stress can tax the heart, but noshing on fatty fish can help strengthen your ticker and boost your mood, to boot. Heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids in whole fish like tuna, halibut, salmon, and sardines may help ease depression, one review found. Lowering overall stress and anxiety is another possible benefit, according to a study.
Looking for a quick and simple way to ease stress? Fill your cup with water and sip away! The importance of hydration during stressful times is well documented. Even mild dehydration can increase cortisol levels, which contributes to increased stress, as one study describes. While drinking enough water will not make your stressors vanish, taking this step will help set your body up to handle stress when it does happen. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the average woman needs about 2.7 liters of water per day, while the average man needs about 3.7. (About 80 percent of that hydration should come from beverages, whereas the remaining 20 percent can come from food.) To calculate your personal fluid needs, give a hydration calculator a try!
Milk (or a Nondairy Alternative)
Your mom might have been onto something when she made you drink all your milk at the dinner table. Turns out, calcium might not only strengthen your skeleton — it could also brighten your mood. One study found that Korean women who consumed the least calcium reported feeling the most depressed. Milk and other dairy as well as nondairy products with calcium and added vitamin D can help muscles relax and stabilize mood; another study suggests these nutrients may even ease symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, which are stressful on their own.
Nuts are a boon to your health in more ways than one. First, they’re satiating, meaning they can help ward off unhealthy cravings. Second, they could help lower blood pressure, according to a study that focused on pistachios. And third, Meyerowitz says, their B vitamins have been shown to help lower stress levels. Remember to reach for only a small handful, as nuts are calorie dense and can lead to weight gain if you eat too many.
Oranges and Other Vitamin C–Rich Fruits
Vitamin C will not only ward off scurvy — the nutrient can also keep stress at bay. One small randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that when people took 3,000 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C in a slow-release formula each day, their cortisol levels, and overall stress, decreased. Citrus fruits, including oranges, grapefruit, and strawberries, are a good start, but you would need a supplement to reach such high levels of these nutrients. Speak with your doctor before adding vitamin C supplements to your diet.
Guac out to your heart’s content. Avocados are packed with healthy monounsaturated fats, vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, and fiber, making for a perfect stress-fighting snack. As mentioned, vitamins C and B6 can help reduce stress, and the fruit’s potassium may help lower blood pressure. Not to mention, the healthy fat and fiber in avocados can help contribute to satiety, discouraging you from unhealthy snacking when you’re stressed, according to a study published in the October 2018 FASEB Journal.
Dark, Leafy Greens
You might think desk salads are boring, but for lowering stress, they may be one of the best choices you can make at lunchtime. Leafy-green vegetables, such as spinach and kale, as well as other raw fruits and veggies, are stress-busting powerhouses, as a study published in a 2018 issue of Frontiers in Psychology described. As a rich source of magnesium, leafy greens can help regulate cortisol and blood pressure levels. Plus, green leafy veggies contain folate, according to data from the USDA, which plays a key role in the production of the feel-good chemical dopamine, notes past research.
Foods to Limit or Avoid When Stressed
Of course, not all foods are good for stress levels. In fact, some foods (or too much of them) may actually make matters worse. Knowing what to put on your plate is just as important as knowing what to skip for lower stress levels.
Your cup of joe could support or sabotage your stress levels. It comes down to volume and timing. “There’s nothing wrong with a couple of cups of a caffeinated beverage earlier in the day, but skip it after noon, as it can interfere with sleep,” says Evelyn Tribole, RD, a coauthor of Intuitive Eating and a private-practice dietitian in Newport Beach, California. Beverages such as caffeinated coffee or tea can help improve mental focus when taken in small amounts, but drinking too much may have unintended effects. “Too much caffeine can make you feel anxious, jittery, and more stressed than you actually are,” adds Molly Kellogg, LCSW, RD, a psychotherapist and dietitian in Philadelphia.
Be mindful of your alcohol intake, as it could similarly help or hurt your stress levels. “If someone has any tendency to overdo it, alcohol is a bad idea,” says Kellogg. When stress is an ongoing issue and someone continues to turn to alcohol to calm their nerves, it can actually contribute to a feeling of depression and make stress more difficult to manage in the long term. Clearview Treatment Programs notes it’s better to abstain from alcohol if you’re feeling depressed or think you lean on it too much. It’s also important to note that alcohol can be a major contributor to many chronic health conditions. In fact, a study published in the September 2018 Lancet found that alcohol is one of the leading causes of death and disability worldwide.
“Avoid taming stress with sugar,” advises Miller. Refined sugar, which is the kind in cookies, cakes, and candy, causes blood sugar to soar and then quickly drop (often described as a “crash”). This is the opposite of what you need when your stress levels are high and your energy levels are low. A study found that increased intake of refined sugar may also raise the risk of depression.
Stress-Free Grocery Shopping List
There are two parts to the equation when it comes to grocery shopping to decrease stress. First, planning ahead and knowing what you’re going to buy at the store can directly cut back on the amount of stress that grocery shopping can bring. (Who knows? With a good enough list, you may even be able to send someone else in your place!) Second, making a shopping list allows you to be mindful of the foods that will fill your home. Stock up on these healthy foods so you’re prepared when stress strikes.
Stress-Fighting Pantry Staples
- Olive oil
- Whole grains (for example brown rice, whole-grain pasta, quinoa, barley, farro)
- Oats (avoid those with added sugar)
- Dark chocolate (60 percent cacao or greater)
- Unsalted nuts (especially almonds, walnuts, cashews, and pistachios)
- Seeds (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, chia seeds)
- Decaf tea (especially black, green, and chamomile)
Fresh Stress-Busting Ingredients
A 14-Day Sample Stress-Buster Menu
Now you know what foods are best (and worst) for stress and how to fill your fridge and cupboard. But how does it all come together into the meals you choose to eat each day? Tastes and schedules will vary from person to person, but here’s an outline of two weeks of meal ideas to fight stress.
Breakfast Old-fashioned oatmeal with skim milk, blueberries, and mixed unsalted nuts
Lunch Turkey and avocado lettuce wrap
Snack An orange and pistachios
Dinner Salmon with broccoli and farro
Dessert A glass of warm milk
Breakfast Plain nonfat yogurt with cherries and unsalted almonds
Lunch Chicken and wild rice soup
Snack An apple and a part-skim cheese stick
Dinner Chicken and veggie stir-fry over brown rice
Dessert One square of dark chocolate
Breakfast 2 eggs (any style) and a slice of whole-grain toast
Lunch A salad topped with chicken and avocado
Snack Carrot sticks and hummus
Dinner Turkey tacos
Dessert A cup of decaf tea
Breakfast Overnight oats with cocoa powder, peanut butter, and banana
Lunch Quinoa and black bean salad
Snack Air-popped popcorn
Dinner Grilled chicken with barley and spinach
Dessert Berries with whipped cream
Breakfast Whole-grain pancakes with fresh berries
Lunch Chicken and veggie wrap
Snack Kale chips
Dinner Tuna roll with brown rice
Dessert Avocado chocolate pudding
Breakfast 1 egg with avocado toast
Lunch Lentil soup
Snack Celery sticks with peanut butter
Dinner Roasted turkey breast with roasted carrots and quinoa
Breakfast Quinoa fruit salad
Lunch Stuffed peppers with seasoned ground turkey, brown rice, and veggies
Snack Pumpkin seeds
Dinner Shrimp spring rolls with peanut sauce
Dessert Baked apple
Breakfast Yogurt parfait with plain nonfat yogurt, fruit, and granola
Lunch Veggie and hummus wrap
Snack Guacamole with multigrain tortilla chips
Dinner Baked trout with tomatoes and mushrooms over brown rice
Dessert Dark-chocolate-covered strawberries
Breakfast Chia pudding with cocoa powder and walnuts
Lunch Bunless veggie burger on a bed of spinach
Snack Whole-grain toast with ricotta and raspberries
Dinner Steak fajita bowl
Dessert Melon with plain nonfat yogurt
Breakfast Steel-cut oatmeal with apples and cinnamon
Lunch Spinach salad topped with solid white albacore tuna in water
Snack A glass of milk
Dinner Butternut squash soup
Dessert A cup of chamomile tea
Breakfast French toast with whole-wheat bread and warm berries
Lunch Grilled cheese on whole-grain bread with tomato soup
Snack A banana with peanut butter
Dinner Chicken with roasted potatoes and veggies
Dessert Poached pear
Breakfast Trail mix and a cup of tea
Lunch Kale chicken Caesar salad
Dinner Grilled salmon with asparagus with brown rice
Dessert Dark-chocolate-covered banana
Breakfast Small bran muffin and nonfat yogurt
Lunch Minestrone soup
Snack Hard-boiled egg
Dinner White bean and spinach quesadilla on a whole-wheat tortilla
Dessert Strawberry shortcake
Breakfast Whole-wheat toast with nut butter and banana slices
Lunch Mason jar salad
Snack Red pepper sticks with hummus
Dinner Veggie chili
Dessert Warm unsweetened applesauce
Tips for Eating During Times of Stress
Eat Regular Meals
If you couldn’t already tell, stress can seriously mess with your hunger cues. One underlying cause is the body’s fight-or-flight mode, which is a reaction to a situation that’s perceived as dangerous, according to the Cambridge Dictionary. “When our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode during times of stress, it can actually shut down feelings of hunger,” says Tribole. “It’s like a broken gas tank. It may say ‘full’ all of the time, but if you rely on that, you may not make it to your destination.” When this happens, you may not sense hunger until you finally sit down, and by then, you may be starving — causing you to overeat or cause you to overeat or choose less nutritious foods. To help combat this effect, Tribole and Kellogg recommend not going more than four hours or so without having something to eat.
Have Healthy Snacks on Hand
Stress management is all about preparation. If you don’t have time to eat a full meal, be sure to have healthy snacks on hand so you aren’t tempted to reach for junk food. For example, stock your work desk with almonds, pack a banana with your lunch, or store precut veggie sticks in your fridge.
Have a Routine (and Stick to It!)
A steady schedule each week reduces stress. Think of it this way: When you don’t have to figure out what you’re going to eat; where, when, and how you’re going to break a sweat; and when you’re going to go to bed, there’s less guesswork involved, and you’re more likely to stick with your plan. Bonus? You might also lose weight. A small study found that setting daily habits and adhering to them helped people keep the weight off for a year. As much as possible, keep everything the same each week, even the day of the week that you go grocery shopping and the healthy go-to foods you always keep stocked in the house, Kellogg says. (See below for what should be in your kitchen!)
Being more mindful has a slew of health benefits — reduced stress among them. Studies suggest that mindfulness can lower not only stress levels but also emotional exhaustion, depression, and anxiety, according to a review in a 2018 issue of PLoS One. That’s why it’s so important to be mindful when we’re eating. That means no scrolling through Instagram, Facebook, or your email when your plate is in front of you. A growing body of research suggests being mindful may help with weight loss, too. Other research, in the February 2018 Obesity Reviews, found that participants in mindfulness programs had lost an average of 6.8 to 7.5 pounds at follow-up.
Be Flexible When Needed
Allow yourself the flexibility you need when you’re stressed without finding fault with yourself. “It doesn’t have to be a gourmet meal every day. Maybe you eat the same simple thing every day for a week, buy takeout, or eat off of paper plates because that’s where your energy level is,” Tribole says. “You don’t make or break your nutrition in one day or one week — it’s what you do over a lifetime.” Being kind to yourself and doing the best you can will ultimately help reduce your stress levels.