Stress Test: How Your Diet Affects Your Stress

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Stress Test: How Your Diet Affects Your Stress

Stress Test is a series about the science behind our busy lives and how stress affects our bodies. The biweekly column uncovers the latest research and explains how to put it to use in a practical way. Look for the science behind epigenetic markers of stress, mindfulness, meditation and deep brain stimulation.


Stress and diet are two of the biggest daily concerns that seem to coincide and largely control our lifestyles. And yet, we’re still conflicted about what’s best for us and what helps to jump back on track.

This month alone, several studies have looked at easy tips to cope with stress, the links between sleep, stress and diet, and low-fat diet withdrawals. Scientists across the country are on the case, yet we’re slowly inching toward an answer.

Essentially, they’ve drawn a few conclusions that make common sense. We’re all different, as are our stressful circumstances. Our bodies crave different foods, which may be related to our gut bacteria and triggers found in our environments. There are health benefits and drawbacks for many foods we see reported in news outlets, including carbs, proteins and dairy. And new research is debunking many of the thoughts we had about sugar, salt and fat from previous decades — at least somewhat.

So what gives? What do we really know, and who can we really trust? As you find and save your most reliable sources of nutrition information, keep these thoughts in mind:

1. Stress and nutrition are inevitably linked.

When your day is interrupted or doesn’t go well, your first instinct may be to turn to a sweet or salty treat. Long work days often scream for that 3-in-the-afternoon-lull pick-me-up coffee. You’re not alone, says a new study published this week in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Researchers from Auburn University in Alabama, Michigan State University, the University of Illinois and the University of Florida found common practices among stressed workers. Reaching for that comfort food isn’t bad, and many times, it’s a good way to boost good-mood feelings in your brain. But we all need to work against the unhealthy aspects of our common habits.

2. Stress and decision-making are also linked, especially with diet.

In this same study, the researchers found that workers who make more decisions during the day — or more complex, stressful decisions — were more inclined to fall away from their healthy eating plans. The brain’s decision-making center has limited space, so if a stressful situation takes precedence, or if too many decisions in a day revolve around eating (or the restriction of it), the more the body will push against new behavior or good habits that are hard to follow. That’s even tougher when workplaces offer snack machines or employees have snack stashes.

3. Our brains control our stress and our cravings.

The cravings that we feel are often linked to neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin in our brains and bodies. When we do something we like or eat something we like, the body releases or restricts these chemicals. When we remove it or go on a diet, our brains look for it. In another study released this week, researchers at different colleges in North Carolina observed rats who experienced stress after moving from a high-fat diet to a low-fat one. The diet triggered stress and suppressed dopamine, which led to binge eating days later when the diet went back to normal.

4. We can change some of these effects by training the brain.

We can’t stop cravings entirely, but we can reduce some negative effects of diets by being mindful. A study released earlier this month in the journal Obesity found that overweight or obese women who tried eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction were able to lower their blood sugar levels. By being more aware of diet and exercise, as well as stress and breathing techniques, they were better able to actively reduce triggers that interfere with their healthy habits. It’s not a cure-all, but it’s good to know that something positive can be done.

5. We shouldn’t ignore time-tested helpful tips.

Although it’s frustrating and confusing to read conflicting dieting and stress tips and try to follow them, some are worth heeding. Most importantly, try new tips gradually and a few at a time so you don’t become discouraged. Plus, find your favorite and most reliable sources and stick with them. Consider these general guidelines, which are backed by dozens of studies, and are suggested to reduce stress for both adults and kids:

• Stay hydrated.
• Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast.
• Focus on vegetables and fruits.
• Consider bright and colorful fresh ingredients.
• Don’t cut out sugar, caffeine or junk food entirely if you’re stressed, but do limit them.
• Don’t remove an entire food group from your diet on a stressful day.
• Monitor your blood sugar and blood pressure on extremely stressful days.
• Don’t remove fat from your diet.
• In fact, look for sources of polyunsatured and monounsatured fats, such as the omega 3 fatty acids found in salmon or nuts, which help with anti-anxiety and anti-depression.
• Above all else, if you’re stressed, take a deep breath, get some exercise, and make sure you get enough sleep.

Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.