When we experience stress on a daily basis, our immune, endocrine, and nervous systems are adversely affected. In fact, stress is one of the biggest risk factors for developing chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, inflammation, chronic pain, and cardiovascular conditions.
Unfortunately, when times get tough, most of us instead head to the candy aisle or drive-thru, engaging in a downward spiral that only aggravates our body’s response to stress.
As a clinical health psychologist, I know that the food we consume has a powerful effect on our minds and bodies. And poor nutrition can only make stress worse. Here are the five foods I recommend avoiding when stressed out:
1. Processed foods
That includes anything that isn't natural, has preservatives, or comes in boxes. Food in packages tends to be loaded with preservatives and unnatural ingredients. And by consuming these foods, we're feeding our minds and bodies with nutrients that actually impair our ability to tackle stress.
A grocery shopping trick that I use to avoid processed foods is to stay as close to the produce aisles as I can. Avoid the middle aisles of your store, which usually contain canned and boxed foods, and you'll notice yourself sticking to whole foods.
2. White flour products
I recommend substituting white flour products for whole wheat. If you find that wheat products affect your gut — a food sensitivity test can help you find out — opt for gluten-free options prepared with almond or coconut flour.
Alcohol affects our liver health and can disrupt hormones. Although you may think it helps you relax, it actually acts as a depressant in your nervous system and disrupts your deep sleep by increasing cortisol levels in the body. And with less quality sleep, you become less able to successfully manage stress.
If cutting out alcohol completely sounds too hard, a good option is ordering a wine spritzer at your next happy hour — it contains club soda and less alcohol. Remember to hydrate well, as well as sweat off the toxins that alcohol can put in your body.
4. Excessive caffeine
I know what you’re thinking: Don’t take away my morning coffee! Don’t worry, your morning coffee is OK. Caffeine isn't necessarily our enemy. But like everything, when consumed in excess, it could have harmful effects, including disrupting our adrenals and nervous system.
By limiting coffee and tea to one to two cups per day and avoiding all caffeine in the afternoon, you'll be better able to stay calm in stressful situations and enjoy a good night’s rest.
Sugar is one of the most difficult things to avoid when we're stressed. Our bodies crave comfort foods like ice cream and chocolate-covered doughnuts. And there's actually a physiological reason behind it: When we're stressed, our cortisol levels rise. High cortisol levels then send a message to our brain that we need sugar to sustain our energy in case we need to fight or flee from a life-threatening situation.
But I’m guessing that big 5 p.m. meeting isn't actually life-threatening. So, next time your sugar craving creeps in, opt for dark chocolate or peanut butter on whole-wheat toast instead.
Stressed Out? What You Should Eat and Do Instead
When you're under stress, not only should you avoid the harmful foods above, but you should also ramp up consumption of the right ones. Be sure to drink plenty of water and get the necessary vitamins and minerals that have been proven to help fight stress: