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6 Eating Habits That Might Be Increasing Your Stress

December 7, 2023

When you think about the connection between stress and eating, your thoughts probably drift to the pint of ice cream down in a single sitting after a difficult day or the greasy cheeseburger crammed between errands. Though it’s true that the pressures of life can drive us toward less-than-healthy eating habits, the link between stress and food isn’t a one-way street. Not only can stress make us eat poorly, but those eating habits can even be increasing your stress. Vicious cycle, right?

If stress is getting you down, you may be unwittingly adding to your mental load with certain dietary choices. To bring a sense of angst down to a more manageable level, try avoiding these six eating habits increasing stress.

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1. Overdoing it on caffeine.

We all know the feeling of the jitters after a bit too much morning coffee. Turns out, an extra shot of espresso isn’t always as harmless as it seems.

For some people, especially those who are sensitive, too much caffeine can mean the difference between a peaceful day and a stressful one. Research shows that caffeine elevates both blood pressure and the secretion of stress hormones, sometimes for hours at a time.

Meanwhile, when consumed close to bedtime, caffeine can mess with your sleep, making you even more ill at ease. If you notice a pattern of anxious feelings in the hours after your cup(s) of joe, try cutting back gradually. The FDA recommends 400 milligrams (about four or five cups of coffee) as an upper daily limit.

And don’t forget that caffeine isn’t just in coffee! Tea, energy drinks, sodas, and chocolate are common sources as well.

2. Eating lots of ultra-processed foods.

Not all processed foods are unhealthy; canned beans and whole wheat bread, for example, are all technically processed. But ultra-processed foods are ones to watch out for, especially when it comes to managing your stress levels. These foods have been processed with artificial colors and flavors, added sugars, excessive sodium, and hydrogenated oils — and the results for your mental health aren’t pretty.

A Brazilian study from 2022 found that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, though, people under stress are more likely to reach for ultra-processed choices like frozen meals, processed meats, and sugary drinks — quite likely because of their convenience and palatable flavor.

Sounds familiar? You can choose to break the cycle! Small changes like packing your lunch with a water bottle instead of a soda or baby carrots instead of a bag of potato chips can add up to better health for the mind and body.

3. Eating too few fruits and vegetables.

If you’re snagging convenience foods on the run, you’re likely missing out on an extremely important dietary category: fruits and veggies. Eating the rainbow not only loads you up with fiber, antioxidants, and much-needed micronutrients, it could boost your mood! A 2022 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that people who snacked on fruits and vegetables were less likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who snacked on other savory items.

Need some tips to work more produce into a non-stop day? Sprinkle berries in oatmeal or a smoothie at breakfast, toss greens into an egg scramble or atop a pizza, or make bell peppers and hummus your afternoon snack.

4. Eating too much sugar and refined carbs.

Some days feel like you’re on an emotional rollercoaster, even when your circumstances aren’t that stressful. What’s that about? It may have to do with your blood sugar.

Reaching for foods high in sugar and refined carbs (think: cookies, sodas, candy, etc.) cause a quick spike in blood sugar, followed by a precipitous drop. When blood sugar drops rapidly, your body attempts to bring it back up by releasing epinephrine, the fight-or-flight hormone that creates feelings of stress and anxiety. Not surprisingly, a 2019 study on older adults found that people (especially women) who had a diet pattern high in added sugars and saturated fats had higher anxiety levels.

Steadying your blood glucose — and by extension, your mood — doesn’t have to mean giving up carbs entirely. Simply reach for complex carbs that won’t take your sugar for a wild ride. These include foods like whole grains, beans and legumes, sweet potatoes, and squash.

5. Drinking too much alcohol.

For most people, there’s nothing wrong with unwinding after a tough day with a glass of wine or a cocktail. But drinking is a slippery slope for stress. When you regularly over-imbibe, it’s all too easy to feel you need alcohol to experience feelings of relaxation. And chronic drinking can actually increase the body’s secretion of the stress hormone cortisol — creating the opposite of the relaxation response.

To keep alcohol enjoyable, rather than stress-inducing, it’s best to consume it moderately. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans define “moderate” drinking as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

6. Going too long without eating.

By skipping meals due to a busy schedule, you may be creating a monster — yourself! Recent research has revealed that the concept of “hanger” (hunger-induced anger) is a very real phenomenon. A 2022 study found that people with greater levels of hunger were more likely to feel anger, irritability, and less pleasure. This is likely due to a significant drop in blood sugar levels. When blood sugar dips too low, irritability and anxiety are well-known side effects.

Besides the biological effects of missing meals, there’s also something to be said about the mental health benefits of pausing to nourish yourself amidst stressors. Instead of framing a hectic day as being “too busy to eat,” try thinking of yourself as “too busy not to eat.” You may be pleased with the stress-relieving results.

Read next: Our 5 Favorite Self-Care Products for Stressful Days

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