We know that what we eat greatly influences our physical health and mental well-being. It may not come as a surprise, then, that due to how nutrients in foods impact our blood sugar levels, gut health, neurotransmitter production, and many other functions, our diets significantly affect how well we’re able to cope with stress.
Often, the foods we tend to grab when we’re feeling stressed out, anxious, or overwhelmed are the opposite of what our body might really need in that moment. When we’re anxious, tired, or upset, it’s tempting to reach for comfort foods, or what researchers call “highly-palatable foods,” because these foods often contain a mix of sugar, carbs, fat, and salt, making them pleasurable to eat, explains dietitian Nicole Aucoin, R.D., with Healthy Steps Nutrition. And while these foods (as well as caffeine and alcohol) do a good job of lifting our spirits quickly, their effects don’t last long. In fact, they often leave us feeling worse off in the end, she says.
The good news: Plenty of healthful foods can help make you feel calmer and more focused, thanks to their supply of certain nutrients, such as amino acids, healthy fats, and essential vitamins and minerals. Here are some of the best eats you can reach for when you’re feeling frazzled or down, plus which ones you’re best off avoiding.
Foods to Avoid When You’re Frazzled
Because of the way they impact your body’s ability to cope with stress, the experts recommend avoiding (or at least limiting) the following foods and drinks when you’re feeling strung out:
- Processed “white” carbs, including bread, pasta, wraps, and rolls
- Desserts and snacks made with added sugar
- Soda, most juices, and other sweetened beverages
Need a science-backed reason to avoid those processed, highly-palatable foods when you’re in a tizzy? A 2021 review published in the journal Nutrients linked high-fat diets that include lots of added sugar and refined carbohydrates with higher levels of anxiety and poorer mental health outcomes.
“We need brain power when stressed, so consuming less nutrient-dense foods that are low in vitamins and minerals and high in saturated fats doesn’t benefit our overall brain health and can potentially worsen stress,” says dietitian Emily Fultz, M.S., R.D.N., of FitwFood.com.
Much of the issue with refined carbs and sugars, meanwhile, stems from how they impact blood sugar levels, adds dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, M.A., R.D.N. After causing an initial spike, they quickly send your blood sugar plummeting (and your mood and energy along with it).
And then there’s the issue of caffeine: “Too much can interrupt your sleep or prevent you from falling asleep, leading you to feel moody the following day,” Taub-Dix says. Some sensitive folks experience jitters, tension, and anxiety after consuming caffeine, even if it’s earlier in the day. Clearly not a helpful addition when you’re already swimming in stress soup.
The Best Foods To Eat When You’re Stressed
While research on how certain foods might help us manage stress, specifically, is limited, we do have plenty of data on how various nutrients support overall brain health and mental well-being.
Of course, a balanced diet (think various fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats) is your foundation here, Fultz says. But when the going gets rough, incorporate the following foods, each of which is rich in nutrients that are good news for your mental state.
“When everything in life is going well, the body uses nutrients from foods constantly to maintain metabolic and physiological equilibrium,” explains clinical nutritionist Rebecca Fallihee, C.N.S., L.D.N. “When we add stress to the equation, the body uses more nutrients, particularly B vitamins and protein, to get back to that equilibrium as quickly as possible.” One of her go-to’s for packing in extra of these? Salmon, which is high in both B vitamins and protein. It’s also one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which help to keep inflammation in check, you can eat. In fact, fatty fish like salmon has been shown in studies to affect brain structures related to mental well-being. Research also suggests that eating fish regularly may help reduce your risk of depression.
2. Oats And Other Whole Grains
“Although people have negative things to say about carbohydrates, carbs actually can make you feel good, provided you eat the right types of carbs, such as whole grains, in the right amounts for your body,” Taub-Dix says. One reason for the mood boost: “While fat and protein take a long time to break down in our systems, carbohydrate gets broken down more quickly to provide energy.” They are, quite literally, a boost in food form.
Read More: 5 Signs You Need To Eat More Carbs
Complex carbs, including 100 percent whole grains, such as oats, quinoa, and wild rice, also help to lift your mood by supporting your body’s ability to make the “feel-good” chemical serotonin. Higher production of serotonin leads to feelings of relaxation and calmness, and might help you sleep better and therefore have more energy during the day, Taub-Dix explains. Additionally, whole grains are great sources of fiber and minerals, which support digestion, something that often suffers when you’re feeling anxious.
Eggs are considered “functional foods” due to their supply of bioactive compounds that can affect our anti-inflammatory pathways. The yolks are particularly rich in vitamins, such as vitamin A and B12, as well as antioxidants that support our gut, brain, and nervous system—all of which are important for mental health, according to Fallihee. And about that cholesterol? We actually need some cholesterol for brain health and to synthesize hormones and neurotransmitters that support a positive mood.
4. Dark chocolate
There’s a reason it feels good to eat chocolate when you’re down: The rich indulgence benefits your mood in multiple very real ways. First, research actually shows that dark chocolate (we’re talking 85 percent cacao) has a prebiotic effect in the gut, meaning it feeds healthy probiotics and ultimately supports a more robust microbiome, which then positively impacts mental well-being. It’s also rich in calming magnesium, which has been shown to play a role in regulating our stress response. (A systematic review published in Nutrients suggests that magnesium-rich foods can help ward off anxiety symptoms.) What’s more, research even notes that the sense of wellness we experience when munching on chocolate is very much real and comes from compounds that mimic cannabinoids.
Stick with the dark stuff and you can enjoy your favorite chocolate bar knowing it’ll benefit your mind in addition to satisfying your taste buds. Case in point: one study has even linked eating dark chocolate with a reduced risk of developing depressive symptoms. Seriously, the mental health benefits are so legit that some research even makes a case for daily dark chocolate consumption!
Mushrooms are another food rich in B vitamins that Fallihee recommends seeking out when you’re stressed and need the extra Bs to keep your energy up and support metabolic and digestive processes. Various types of mushrooms are great additions to your meals because they’re high in fiber, B vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid, as well as phytonutrients.
Aside from common mushrooms like the portobellos you’ll find at the grocery store, ‘functional mushrooms‘, which positively affect the nervous system, are also worth seeking out for stress support. Research shows that certain mushrooms act as adaptogens, meaning they help you maintain balance when fatigued or stressed. Adaptogenic mushroom species include reishi, cordyceps, and lion’s mane, which you can take in a variety of forms (from capsules to drink mixes) to support your body and mind.
6. Leafy Greens
Dark leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, romaine, and arugula, are full of nutrients, including fiber, magnesium, calcium, B vitamins, vitamin K, and antioxidants. Each of these nutrients has its role in fighting stress, according to Fallihee. For example, fiber supports a healthy gut (which is a must for mental well-being) while magnesium maintains muscle function and may help you relax and get quality sleep more easily. Plus, antioxidants (like those found in these leafy veggies) are generally supportive of mental health since they help defend against free radical damage that can negatively affect the brain.
Read More: 7 Of The Healthiest Greens You Can Eat
If you struggle to get enough greens on your plate (we get it, a salad may not appeal when you’re feeling frantic), one convenient way to get some of that good-for-you nutrition into your body is to grab a green superfood powder to mix into water or a smoothie.
7. Nuts And Seeds
Fallihee considers nuts and seeds to be some of the best foods for stress because they are high in healthy fats, including omega-3s and monounsaturated fats, as well as protein, B vitamins, and magnesium. Unsurprisingly, given those nutrition stats, regularly eating nuts and seeds (like almonds, walnuts, pistachios, flax, chia, and pumpkin seeds) has been linked with enhanced cognitive performance. Not to mention, since these foods are filling, they can help you feel satiated quickly, which might be your ticket to avoiding stress-eating the highly-processed stuff, adds Aucoin.
There’s evidence that antioxidant-rich diets benefit people with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, says Taub-Dix. That’s why she recommends reaching for berries—including strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries—which provide an array of antioxidants, in addition to fiber and vitamin C. (Like other antioxidants, vitamin C assists your body in handling stress by working to manage oxidative stress that can take a toll on brain function, among many other bodily processes.)
9. Chamomile Tea
Herbal teas like chamomile have been utilized in traditional systems of medicine for centuries due to their calming effects. When you feel wound-up or tense, sipping on a cup of warm tea is a great way to unwind and feel more grounded, especially if it’s made with herbs like chamomile, suggests Taub-Dix, who likens a warm mug to a hug. The all-star behind this dainty flower’s benefits: an antioxidant called apingen that attaches to certain brain receptors and has a soothing, sleepy effect.