Home » 9 of the Worst Foods to Eat When Stressed
The desire to comfort eat is a natural feeling – stress eating is something we can all relate to. You get all wound up about an essay you need to write or a looming deadline at work, which makes you want to chomp down on half a dozen cookies. Eating them gives you a sudden mood lift, or at the very least dulls the feelings of anxiety and distress.
Whatever the cause may be, many of us find that stress prompts the craving for something chocolatey, salty, or sugary. It never makes us crave a bowl of salad or a pack of nuts, though. Why is that? Well, this is to do with how your brain responds to feelings of stress.
Why do we crave certain foods when stressed?
The stress we deal with is quite different to that of our ancestors: ours is usually prompted by psychological threats, such as failure, disappointment, and loss. But back when we were still hunting in loincloths, our worries mainly consisted of escaping a life or death situation.
Stress is our brain’s response to a threat: it is necessary for putting us into ‘fight or flight’ mode. It prompts an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone, which helps regulate all sorts of changes that occur in the body to help prepare us for fighting or running.
This is why our body craves certain kinds of food when it’s stressed: those that are high in fat, sugar, and salt. These foods directly increase our cortisol levels and trigger the reward systems in our brain to release dopamine (which helps us relax and focus).
Our body craves sustenance that will help it stay in ‘fight or flight’ mode, in case we need to run for it!
Now, obviously the problem here is that we’re not going to need this energy to escape our fears and dreads. So it just sits in the body, unused. We end up crashing, gaining unnecessary weight, and actually exacerbating our feelings of anxiety.
So, now that you know the reason behind our cravings, you understand why it’s important to try avoid certain foods when stress eating.
Which foods should I avoid when stress eating?
Check out our list of the 9 worst foods to eat when feeling stressed:
This is an obvious one. Eating a full bag of Haribos may be tempting when you’re feeling down, but there’s no nutritional value at all. It just causes a sugar spike and leaves you feeling even more lethargic and with more cravings than before, prompting a vicious cycle.
2. Gum and Sugar-Free Sweets
So sugar spikes are an issue: I’ll eat sugar-free candy, you think. Well, these foods often leave you feeling bloated and uncomfortable, and that’ll just exacerbate stress. Chewing gum also causes signals to be sent to your stomach that it’s about to get food, so it starts producing acids. Without receiving any substantial food to digest, these acids cause irritation and discomfort.
3. French fries and Chips
As with sweets, the sudden spike caused by high carbohydrate and fat will lead to a crash. And because chips are a high-sodium food, it will increase blood pressure and just worsen anxiety when you eat them in excess.
4. White Flour Products
Foods with a high level of white flour are generally inflammatory and stress your digestive system, which when you’re already stressed is just exacerbating issues. Try to avoid them where you can, substituting for brown or whole-wheat.
5. Spicy Foods
If you’re prone to having problems with your stomach when stressed, you should definitely bypass spicy foods. Stress slows down the body’s metabolism and digestion, so food stays in the stomach for longer than usual, which causes issues like acid reflux – and that’s exacerbated by spicy foods.
6. High Fat Dairy Foods
This is similar to the above. If you typically feel stress in your stomach, or suffer from IBS or lactose intolerance, you should pass over rich cheeses, high fat milks, and creams.
The main issue here is that opening a bag of crisps out of stress means you’re gonna eat the whole thing: a bag full of processed fat and sodium. And there’s no real nutritional value at all; you’re just gaining short-term relief in exchange for long-term issues.
8. Red Meat
Because this type of meat is high in protein, it gives your body a kick of dopamine. But if that’s all your body’s getting, there’s nothing to neutralise accelerated levels of dopamine: your body gets overrun, and this can increase stress signals.
9. Energy Drinks
Energy drinks may contain as much caffeine as three cups of coffee, and putting all this in your body when stressed is just asking for trouble. The caffeine jitters and sugar crashes are strenuous for your body and will leave you feeling equally – if not more – stressed than before.
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Liz has a degree in English and Creative Writing and is skilled at writing about technical subjects in a style that anyone can understand – she enjoys supporting people’s learning. Outside of work, Liz spends her time on hobbies such as writing, reading, gaming, and fine art.