Feeling stressed? Here's why you should take a look at your diet

by: Nik Addams
10 Oct 2019

It's not exactly news that we live in stressful times. And while some things remain beyond our control, one thing we can control is making sure we look after ourselves. And that starts with what fuels us - food.

This World Mental Health Day we sit down with Sarah Connellan, a registered dietitian who works with mental health NGO Mind HK, to talk about the relationship between stress and diet, and get some top tips on how to manage what is within our control. 

Stress eater? That’s biology at play: High stress levels, particularly elevated cortisol, affects food choice. “Studies have shown that feelings of stress can lead people to choose less healthy foods that are higher in calories, fat, sugar or salt,” Connellan explains. “Over time this leads to weight gain, which can itself turn into a source of stress.” 

Prolonged stress can have prolonged physical impacts: Chronic stress, according to Connellan, ‘increases the metabolic needs of the body and causes inflammation’. In the long run, this can lead to nutrient deficiencies and stress-related health conditions such as atherosclerosis, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and inflammatory bowel disease. 

Stress and diet World Mental Health Day - berries
Berries are a delicious source of antioxidants.

Diet also impacts the other type of stress: That would be oxidative stress. This occurs when there are too many free radicals in the body, which causes cell damage and can in turn lead to chronic inflammation and a host of other chronic diseases. The best way to combat this is by upping your antioxidant intake, which can get rid of free radicals and promote immune function. Connellan recommends eating at least five portions of fruit and veg every day - berries, citrus fruits and leafy green veggies are especially high in antioxidants. As a bonus, antioxidants can also improve immune function and can even reduce the effects of aging. 

It’s in the gut: Diet and stress can also interact with each other through the gut microbiome (the collective name of the microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts). “Stress alters the bacteria present in the gut, while diet dictates which gut bacteria will flourish and grow,” Connellan says. Having a diverse and healthy microbiome can help prevent low mood, poor food choice and cravings. “Eating a wide variety of foods, including fermented foods such as yogurts with live or active cultures, increases the ‘friendly’ bacteria in your gut,” advises Connellan.

Stress and diet World Mental Health Day - brown rice
Wholegrain carbs like brown rice should be an essential part of your diet. 

Carbs and fats are your friends: “Your brain thrives on carbohydrates,” says Connellan. “If you don’t feed it regularly your blood sugars will drop and you’ll feel tired and stressed.” Connellan suggests eating wholegrain carbs - think oats, quinoa, brown rice and the like - three times a day, to ensure blood sugars remain stable while preventing cravings and low mood.

Just like there are good carbs, there are also fats that we should be consuming. “Our brains are made of around 50% fat and our cells need fat to function properly,” says Connellan. “Get the right balance by including nuts, seeds, avocados and oily fish in your diet and by using unsaturated oils, such as olive oil, instead of saturated fats, such as butter.” Try to also decrease trans fats - hidden in many processed foods - which can be harmful to brain function and heart health. 

Balance is key: While Connellan admits that there’s ‘no one magical food to help reduce stress levels’, she does stress the importance of balance. “Balance your meals by filling half your plate with fruit or veg, a quarter with high-protein foods such as meat, fish or beans, and the remainder with wholegrain, starchy carbohydrates like wholegrain pasta, oats, or wholemeal bread,” Connellan advises. The high veggie count will help with your antioxidant intake.

The more colour, the better when it comes to fruit and veg.

Eat a rainbow: It might sound like esoteric advice you’d find on Goop, but Connellan tells us that it’s good to include a wide range of colours in your diet. “One of the best ways to get all the nutrients you need is to ‘eat a rainbow’,” she says. “This means having green, yellow, orange, red and purple fruit and veg every week. Each colour tends to have a unique nutrient profile so ensuring you eat a mix will give you the nutritional variety your body, and gut, needs.” Connellan says we should aim for around 30 different types of plant foods every week to optimise gut health.

You are what you drink: It goes without saying that water is essential to overall wellbeing. But it affects us in more ways than what we probably realise - studies have shown that even slight dehydration can affect mood. To figure out how much you need to drink, Connellan recommends multiplying your body weight (in kilograms) by 35ml for a reasonable daily average. More fluid is needed in hot weather or if exercising, though.

On the flipside, it should also go without saying that it pays to keep caffeine and alcohol intake monitored. If you’re a bit of a grump before your morning joe, Connellan advises that this might be a sign to try and lessen how much you have. Watch the booze, too: “Drinking too much alcohol can cause dehydration and can lead to B vitamin deficiencies, which may also make you feel depressed or anxious,” says Connellan.

Stress and diet World Mental Health Day - water

Output also matters… Of course, there’s more to reducing stress levels than diet. “Some simple, healthy ways that can help reduce stress levels, apart from having a healthy, balanced diet, include being physically active, getting enough sleep, socialising or talking to friends, family, or a therapist and doing hobbies you enjoy and find relaxing,” says Connellan. “Mind HK recommends regular physical activity and exercise - it’s one of the most effective ways of reducing stress levels, improving your mood, and preventing and treating some mental health problems, including depression.” 

...but ultimately, you do you: “Diet alone does not cause stress or anxiety, nor can it cure it,” Connellan says. “However, diet can play an important role in managing and preventing stress. Stress is very individual and everyone has different coping strategies.” 

To find out more about Mind HK and the excellent work they do, head to the official website.