Stress: How to Manage it With Healthier Choices

Posted on August 20, 2018 by Jenna Ahlschlager, ACE-CHC

Updated June 18, 2020

Impact of Stress


Whether it’s a deadline at work, a full schedule of after school activities, or simply not having enough time in the day, we all experience stress. We know stress is bad for our health – it can negatively impact our mood, increase anxiety and even increase our blood pressure. However, did you know stress can also cause us to make poor food choices, most of the time without even realizing it?

Stress is the most common reason people abandon plans to change behavior, such as eating healthier. In fact, stress depletes self-control, lowers feelings of self-efficacy and decreases energy and motivation.

In the short term, stress can actually suppress our appetite. However, if stress persists your body releases a different hormone called cortisol, which increases our appetite. When our stress level remains elevated, so does our level of cortisol production and in turn, our desire to eat.

This increase in cortisol production also results in increased blood sugar, cravings, increases in abdominal fat (the most detrimental to our health) and can cause hormonal imbalances. The elevated levels of cortisol reduce our ability to burn fat and increases the rate at which we store fat.

Stress also influences our food preferences. Studies show how physical or emotional distress increases the intake of foods high in fat, sugar or both due to the combination of high cortisol and insulin levels. Once consumed, foods high in fat and sugar impact the part of the brain that processes stress-related hormones, thus seeming to counteract stress. Now you can easily see why these foods have been termed “comfort” foods!

Manage Stress with Healthy Food Choices

We can’t completely remove stress from our lives, but we can learn to manage it. Below are some tips for ways to manage stress and make better food choices.

1. Meal prep, meal prep, meal prep

This one is so important! When we are stressed, the last thing we want to do is spend a lot of time chopping, prepping and cooking. A good idea is to prepare healthy meals and snacks in advance. Some ideas include:

  • Use Sundays as your “meal prep day” to cut all of your fruits and vegetables for the week.
  • Prepare and portion out salads for your lunch during the week. Find meal prep and portion control containers online.
  • Put all of your ingredients for breakfast smoothies in plastic baggies or containers and freeze (minus the liquid). When you are ready to blend one up, all you need is to grab from the freezer, blend with water or almond milk and go!
  • When you cook a healthy meal, double the recipe so you have leftovers for lunch the next day or for dinner during the week.
2. Follow a balanced diet and include stress-busting foods

Following a healthy, balanced diet can help you better manage stressful situations. Visit a credible website like Choose My Plate to learn more about how much you should be consuming of each food group. Try incorporating these five foods into your diet, proven to help manage stress:

  • Folic acid: Research has shown a link between folic acid deficiencies and low emotional health. Foods high in folic acid include asparagus, oranges, avocados, beans and leafy greens.
  • Blueberries contain high levels of anthocyanin and Vitamin C, which can fight stress hormones such as cortisol and improve your immune system.
  • Dark chocolate (70% cacao or higher) is high in antioxidants and is known to improve your mood and lower blood pressure. Not to mention, it can quickly satisfy your sweet tooth guilt-free!
  • Seeds (such as pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, or sunflower seeds) contain magnesium, which can increase feelings of overall well being and help stabilize emotions.
  • Chamomile or lavender tea can calm your nerves because they are caffeine free, reduce feelings of anxiety and help you sleep better. Try having a cup before bed to help wind down.
3. Eat at regular intervals throughout the day

Eating at regular intervals throughout the day will help keep your blood sugar stable and keep your mind strong, allowing you to be healthy and alert all day and avoid the “afternoon slump.” It can also provide increased stamina, focus and self-esteem. Eating healthy, regular meals will allow you to be better equipped to handle stress in a more productive way.

4. Be mindful of your food when you eat and get rid of distractions

Mindful eating consists of allowing yourself to be aware of your food, using all your senses in choosing to eat food both satisfying and nourishing to your body and acknowledging responses to food, including likes and dislikes, without judgment. Also, by getting rid of distractions you become aware of physical hunger and satiety cues will help to guide your decisions to begin and end eating, because you are directing your attention to eating on a moment-by-moment basis.

The bottom line is the more stress we experience, the more often we make poor food choices, which over time will lead to weight gain. The next time you feel stressed, try going for a walk or calling up a friend or family member instead of reaching for the first unhealthy thing you see in your kitchen. Being aware of how stress influences the food choices we make can help us to create habits that support, not hurt, our overall health and well being!

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Lifestyle Modification and Behavioral Change.” ACE Health Coach Manual: The Ultimate Guide to Wellness, Fitness, and Lifestyle Change, by Cedric X. Bryant et al., American Council on Exercise, 2013, pp. 393

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