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Stress and Food – An Interesting Relationship!

“I’m so stressed,” “Work is stressing me out,” “I am stuck in traffic… so stressful!” Sound familiar? It seems as if our society lives in a world of stressful situations – or at least situations that are perceived to be stressful.

By: Kelly Atyeo, B.A.Sc., M.H.Sc., P.H.Ec.

“I’m so stressed,” “Work is stressing me out,” “I am stuck in traffic… so stressful!” Sound familiar? It seems as if our society lives in a world of stressful situations – or at least situations that are perceived to be stressful. Stress affects our mental health – a huge aspect of overall well-being.

The link between food, stress and mental health is a relatively new area of research, but is quite exciting! Although we cannot say a specific food “cures” stress, there is evidence that stress affects food intake and healthy eating is key when you feel stressed.

Stress and Food

Your food intake can change when you are under stress, but it is very individual – some people eat more and some eat less. Also, what changes is the type of foods people eat. Research shows that people tend to eat more high-fat, sweet, and processed foods that they would typically avoid 1,2. These are often considered “comfort foods 2. This is an issue because these food choices may lead to weight gain, affect other conditions one may have (like diabetes), and generally lack nutrients that may be useful in combating symptoms of stress. Make it a priority to eat a healthy balanced diet to cope with stress instead3!

Focus on Nutrition!

Healthy Carbohydrates

Stress can make you irritable, anxious, and just not your typical, happy self. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (or chemical) that sends signals in the brain that may improve mood4. Eating carbohydrate-rich foods may promote the release of serotinin 5,6. However, it is important to eat the right carbohydrates to avoid weight gain and control your blood sugar levels7. Choose whole grains and vegetables as your healthy carbohydrates. They are rich in vitamins, minerals and high in fibre to help keep you full for longer and slowly release sugar into your blood stream so you stay energized after your meal 7.

Healthy Fats

Stress can drastically affect a person’s physical health, such as increasing blood pressure. Omega-3 fatty acids are a healthy contribution to your diet because they promote brain health and can help lower blood pressure 8. Also, research shows that Omega-3 fatty acids may help lower people’s “perceived levels of stress9.

Foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids include: flax seeds, walnuts, salmon, and soybeans10.

Boost your B vitamins

B vitamins are needed for your body to use carbohydrates, protein, and fats for energy 11. During stressful events your body uses a lot of energy. If you aren’t eating enough foods with B-vitamins, then you may start to feel tired, weak and lethargic.

There are 8 different B vitamins found in a variety of foods 11.

Eating a balance of the four food groups (Meat & Alternatives, Milk Products, Grains, and Vegetables and Fruit) and variety is the best way to get enough B-vitamins. If for any reason you do not eat from one of these food groups, it’s wise to contact a health care professional to ensure you are getting all of your nutrients.

Here are some recipes to help you get a balance of the four food groups, as well as those important B vitamins, Omega-3s and healthy carbohydrates:

Grilled Chicken with Fig, Grape and Walnut Salsa

Miso Chicken & Tofu Soup

Spread the Awareness

The Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) national Mental Health Awareness week takes place in May. CMHA encourages you to take steps to improve/maintain your current mental health and spread the awareness of the importance of mental health to family and friends 12. Whether it’s promoting healthy eating, stress reduction, or being more spiritual, do your part to support the minds of those around you 13. Visit this link for more information on mental health and CMHA’s Mental Health Awareness Week.


  1. Zellner, D. et al. (2006). Food Selection Changes Under Stress. Physiology & Behavior, 87, 789-793.
  2. Kandiah, J., Yake, M., & Willett, H. (2008). Effects of Stress on Eating Practices Among Adults. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 37(1), 27-38.
  3. Canadian Mental Health Association. (2012). Benefits of Good Mental Health. Retrieved December 9, 2012
  4. Young, S. (2007). How to Increase Serotonin in the Human Brain without Drugs. Journal of Psychiatry Neuroscience, 32(6), 394-9.
  5. Go Ask Alice. (2009). Serotonin and Foods? Retrieved December 9, 2012
  6. Magee, E. (2005). 7 Ways to De-Stress Your Diet. Retrieved December 9, 2012
  7. Low dog, T. (2010). The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 16(2), 42-46.
  8. University of Maryland Medical Centre. (2011). Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Retrieved December 9, 2012 
  9. Bradbury, J., Myers, S., & Oliver, C. (2004). An Adaptogenic Role for Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Stress: A Randomised Placebo Controlled Double Blind Intervention Study (pilot). Nutrition Journal, 3(20).
  10. Dietitians of Canada. (2010). Food Sources of Omega-3 Fats. Retrieved December 9, 2012
  11. Better Health Channel. (2012). Vitamin B. Retrieved December 9, 2012
  12. Canadian Mental Health Association. (2012). Mental Health Week. Retrieved December 9, 2012
  13. Canadian Mental Health Association. (2012). Mental Health for All Fact Sheet. Retrieved December 9, 2012

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