Eating for Stress vs. Stress Eating

Girl works at a computer and stress eats fast food. Unhealthy food: chips, crackers, candy, waffles, cola. Junk food, concept.
Medically Reviewed
April 10, 2024

The impact of stress on people’s health can appear in many ways every day. It shows up in fatigue, digestive issues, trouble sleeping, and changes in eating habits. When feeling overwhelmed, many people turn to food for comfort, leading to a cycle of stress eating that can negatively affect their well-being. 

As a clinical nutritionist, finding help combating stress eating is a common discussion in my nutrition counseling sessions with our Nava Health clients.

But here’s the good news: food can be a powerful tool for managing stress and promoting resilience. Making conscious choices about what we eat can nourish our bodies and minds for better stress management. 

In this post, we’ll explore the difference between “eating for stress” and “stress eating,” I’ll share my top tips on using food to support your emotional well-being. 

Eating for Stress vs. Stress Eating 

Eating for stress is a proactive approach. It’s about incorporating foods into your diet that are known to have stress-reducing properties. These foods provide essential nutrients that support the body’s stress response system and promote calmness. 

Stress eating, on the other hand, is a reactive response. It’s about reaching for sugary or salty, processed foods that offer a temporary sense of comfort but can ultimately worsen your stress levels and overall health. 

How Food Impacts Stress 

Stress triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone that helps the body manage stressful situations. However, chronically elevated cortisol levels can disrupt critical bodily functions, including digestion, sleep, energy, and mood. 

Certain nutrients play a crucial role in regulating cortisol and supporting the nervous system. Here are some key players: 

  • B vitamins: B vitamins are essential for nervous system function. Deficiencies in B vitamins, particularly B6 and B12, have been linked to increased stress and anxiety. Foods rich in vitamin B include whole grains, legumes, leafy greens, fish, and poultry. 
  • Magnesium: Magnesium helps regulate the stress hormone response and promotes relaxation. Leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, avocados, and dark chocolate are all good sources of magnesium. 
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation and improve mood. Fatty fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel), flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts are rich in omega-3s. 
  • Probiotics: Probiotics, the “good” bacteria in our gut, play a vital role in mood regulation. Eating fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha can help increase probiotic intake. 

8 Tips for Eating for Stress 

  1. Prioritize a Balanced Diet: Aim for a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats. This provides your body with the essential nutrients it needs to function optimally under stress. 
  2. Start Your Day with Protein: Include a source of protein in your breakfast to help regulate blood sugar and keep you feeling fuller for longer, reducing cravings throughout the day. 
  3. Focus on Blood Sugar Balance: Avoid sugary foods and refined carbohydrates, as they can lead to blood sugar spikes and crashes contributing to anxiety and fatigue. 
  4. Don’t Skip Meals: Skipping meals can actually worsen stress and lead to overeating later. Aim for regular meals and snacks throughout the day to keep your blood sugar levels stable. 
  5. Hydration is Key: Dehydration can exacerbate stress symptoms like fatigue and headaches. Aim to drink plenty of water throughout the day. Need a kickstart to get to an optimal level of hydration, try IV therapy
  6. Mindful Eating: Pay attention to your hunger cues and slowly savoring your food. Mindful eating practices help you avoid mindless overeating and improve your body’s ability to recognize fullness signals. 
  7. Plan and Prepare Meals: When feeling stressed, it’s easy to resort to unhealthy options. Planning and prepping healthy meals and snacks in advance can help you make better choices during busy or stressful times. 
  8. Don’t Forget the Fun Factor: Eating should be enjoyable! Explore new recipes, cook with loved ones, and make mealtimes a positive experience. 

Stress-Busting Superfoods 

Here are some specific food recommendations to incorporate into your diet for stress management: 

  • Fatty Fish: Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help prevent surges in stress hormones and may protect against heart disease, depression, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Aim to eat at least 3.5 ounces of fatty fish like salmon or tuna, at least twice a week. 
  • Dark Leafy Greens: Packed with magnesium, a mineral that helps regulate stress hormones and promotes relaxation. Spinach, kale, and Swiss chard are all excellent sources of magnesium. 
  • Berries: These delicious fruits are loaded with antioxidants that can help fight inflammation and improve mood. Blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries are all great choices. 
  • Nuts and Seeds: A good source of healthy fats, protein, and fiber, all of which can help keep you feeling full and satisfied, reducing stress-induced cravings. Almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and chia seeds are all nutritious options. 
  • Dark Chocolate: Dark chocolate (at least 70% cacao) contains mood-boosting compounds like flavonols and can be a healthy indulgence in moderation. 

While we all experience stress, the good news is that food can be a powerful ally in promoting resilience and overall well-being. By adopting a proactive approach to “eating for stress” and incorporating the tips outlined above, you can use the power of nutrition to manage stress effectively and nourish your body and mind for optimal health.  

At Nava Health, our team of functional nutritionists supports your journey to a healthier, happier you. 

StephanieM Headshot Doctor - Nava Health

Stephanie is an autoimmune advocate and Functional Nutritionist who blends science, humor, and herbalism to create personalized nutrition and integrative health strategies. With over five years of clinical experience, Stephanie has helped numerous clients overcome various health issues, from weight management to autoimmunity and hormonal balance.