While we won't ever be able to completely avoid stress, we can put practices in place to better deal with it. One of those practices is choosing the right foods to put into our bodies.

By Julie Floyd Jones
May 03, 2021
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You worry about your health and the health of those you love. You have uncertainty around your kids' school. You deal with work-related pressures. The news is a barrage of issues surrounding the state of the nation, the economy, and social issues. The list of potential stressors over the last year is long.

If you're feeling more stress than normal since the COVID-19 pandemic began, you're not alone. The American Psychological Association recently released a study that found 78% of Americans say that the pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives. Another two-thirds (67%) say that their stress levels have increased in general.

While there are many stressors outside of our control, there are ways that we can control our reaction to stress. Our eating habits, including the foods we eat, have a major impact on stress, how we deal with it, and how we recover from it.

To get more insight on stress and the role that food plays in dealing with it, I spoke with Dr. Howard Maziar, a board-certified psychiatrist in Atlanta, Georgia. We'll take a closer look at his recommendations and provide additional insight on foods to include to reduce stress.

Think Before You Eat

Mindfulness is a powerful tool for stress relief. And research suggests that taking a mindful approach to our food can have a positive impact on stress-related eating.

As a certified personal trainer, I often suggest to my clients that they ask themselves before eating, "Will this give me sustained energy, or will it take it away?"

Maziar agrees that it's important to focus on exactly what you are putting into your body when dealing with stress and suggests that we be mindful and intentional about our food choices—that we think before we eat. When we stop to think, we give ourselves a moment to pause and that allows us the time we need to make a better choice.

Stress eating is often impulsive. And stressful situations tend to have a negative effect on both the foods we choose and the amount we consume. The high-sugar, high-fat foods that we typically crave during times of high stress are the exact foods that we should avoid when trying to reduce stress.

Maziar suggests that we should expect cravings to occur, especially in stressful times, and shares that it's not that we can eliminate cravings, but that we can learn to better deal with them when they happen. "Before going for the chips, indulging in a late-night snack, or serving an extra portion onto your plate, wait just two minutes. Often if we take a step back and wait, the craving and urge will subside."

Eat Real, Whole Foods

When we think about eating to reduce stress, it's important that we focus on real, whole foods—a practice called "clean eating."

Clean eating means that we build the majority of our diet around unprocessed foods: vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, eggs, fresh meats, fresh seafood, herbs and spices. When we focus on including these foods, it enables us to crowd out the high-sugar, high-fat foods with nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods that sustain energy and help us fight stress.

There are key vitamins and nutrients that we want to include daily when eating to reduce stress. These include the vitamins B and C, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and selenium.

To ensure that you've gotten this mix of nutrients, there are six key foods to include in your diet to reduce stress.

Bananas

Nature's perfect snack. They come with their own wrapper and have the perfect combination of natural sugars and fiber to create sustained energy. Bananas also contain two of our key nutrients to include to reduce stress: vitamins B6 and C.

Berries

These are beautiful little superfoods. They're packed with fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants, and the anthocyanins found in their skins are a powerful tool in fighting diabetes and obesity.

Credit: Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Spinach

The king of greens. Loaded with vitamins B, C, and magnesium, it is one of the most important foods to include to reduce stress. In addition, its mild flavor and versatility make it easy to include in smoothies, sauces, stir-fries, and soups.

Eggs

An excellent stress-fighting food. They are a potent source of vitamins B and D, choline, and selenium. Selenium and choline are important nutrients for brain health and are essential for dealing with stress. In addition, boiled eggs are easily portable and can be eaten alone or added to a salad for a boost of high-quality protein.

Credit: Illustration: Joël Penkman

Salmon

Along with other fatty fish including tuna, sardines, mackerel, and trout, salmon contains stress-busting vitamin B and omega-3 fatty acids that boost serotonin to improve mood.

Walnuts

Is it a coincidence that these brain-shaped nuts have brain-boosting benefits? This nutrient-dense nut is high in vitamin B, omega-3 fatty acids, and uridine—the combination of which has been show to be a natural antidepressant.

While we will never be able to completely alleviate stress in our lives, we can do a better job of managing it, and our diet plays an important role in our daily stress management system.

By taking time to pause, taking a step back, and focusing on eating real, whole foods with key vitamins and nutrients, we can take control of our nutrition and fight stress with food.

Try this stress-reducing recipe for lunch or dinner: Pan-Seared Salmon with Pear and Walnut Spinach Salad

Credit: Photo: Iain Bagwell

Dr. Howard Maziar is an Atlanta-based Board Certified Psychiatrist and has practiced for over 40 years. He is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He is a past President of the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association and was selected as "Psychiatrist of the Year" by the Organization in 2008.

Julie Jones is an Atlanta-based Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Yoga Instructor. Julie is the Program Director for Excellence in Exercise where she works with corporate partners to provide wellness solutions for employees globally. She is the founder of Training & Champagning Curated Wellness Retreats and Thrive.