The Experts Agree: What You Eat Can Directly Impact Stress and Anxiety

Young woman using a cutting board with fruits

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Key Takeaways

  • Experts say what you eat is connected to your mental well-being.
  • Sugar, processed carbohydrates, and what you’re not eating can contribute to stress.
  • Eating mostly nutrient-rich foods can allow you to also indulge in your favorite treats. 

After you indulge in your favorite burger and fries or deep-dish pizza, you might notice the initial satisfaction you feel wears off after a while. “There is evidence that diet affects mood, including depression and anxiety, as well as our body's stress response,” says Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian in Lubbock, Texas, and spokesperson for All-Purpose In The Raw sugar company.

For instance, a 2021 study published in Clinical Nutrition from Edith Cowan University in Australia, found that eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is associated with less stress.

Of the 8,600 participants, those who ate at least 470 grams of fruit and vegetables daily had 10% lower stress levels than those who consumed less than 230 grams. The researchers believe their study supports the link between diets rich in fruit and vegetables and mental well-being. 

McMordie agrees. “Mood is regulated by the brain, and to work properly, the brain needs optimal fuel from nutrients in food,” she says. 

Mood is also affected by the microbiome in the digestive tract (or the gut), she adds. 

“[This] is why we're seeing even more emphasis on gut health in relation to mental health. Nutrient deficiencies and inflammation can be contributors to anxiety and stress, and what we eat can help or hurt these areas,” McMordie says.

What Foods Negatively Affect Mental Well-being?

Teralyn Sell, PhD, psychotherapist and brain health expert, says the biggest food culprits that contribute to stress are caffeine, sugar, alcoholic beverages, and not eating at all. 

She explains that, “Foods or beverages that contain caffeine can increase your heart rate, cause jitters, make it difficult to sleep, etc. Though caffeine doesn’t cause anxiety, it can certainly contribute to it.” 

While many health professionals point to common culprits like sugar and processed carbohydrates as the causes of stress, McMordie believes it is connected to not eating. 

Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD

Mood is regulated by the brain, and to work properly, the brain needs optimal fuel from nutrients in food

— Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD

Although studies have shown that diets high in processed foods, fast food, and sugar are more likely to increase depression and anxiety than diets like the Mediterranean diet, she notes that many of them fail to explain why this is.

“When most of the diet consists of highly refined foods that are void of a lot of nutrition, there is little room left for nutrient-dense foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, whole grains, and legumes. So, while highly processed foods may not directly be the cause of poor mood, they can certainly contribute when they make up most of the diet,” says McMordie. 

Understanding how blood sugar regulation or reactive hypoglycemia, which is low blood sugar that occurs after eating, can cause stress and anxiety is helpful, too, says Sell. 

“It's like a roller coaster ride for your mood. When blood sugar is dysregulated, your body will eventually kick off adrenaline, and now you are in fight-or-flight mode, which is your anxious brain,” she says. “With that being said, a high sugar diet will dysregulate your blood sugar and contribute to stress and anxiety.” 

What Foods Can Improve Mental Well-being?

Whole foods, protein, and healthy fats can positively impact your mental health, says Sell. 

“Your brain’s neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, etc.) rely on amino acids from protein and nutrient cofactors (vitamins A, D, C, B, etc.) from other nutrient-dense foods. That’s why it’s important to evaluate your nutrition when you are trying to improve your mental status,” she says. 

Try to add in colorful fruits and vegetables, fatty fish, such as salmon, olive oil, nuts, legumes, and whole grains, McMordie adds. “It's important to include a variety of these foods in everyday meals and snacks, not just occasionally, to prevent nutrient deficiencies,” she says. 

In addition to a Mediterranean-style pattern, she notes that fermented foods and other foods that nourish the microbiome, such as yogurt and kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and tempeh “can contribute to a better mood.” 

Ways to Alleviate Stress and Anxiety Related to Food During the Holidays

The holiday season is often connected to eating more or eating differently than you might ordinarily. 

“A lot of the stress around food during the holidays can be self-inflicted through trying to restrict your holiday favorites and/or restricting overall food intake in anticipation of the many treats around,” says McMordie. 

Trying to restrict yourself can cause a vicious cycle of anxiety and irritability due to low blood sugar and hunger-induced deprivation, which McMordie says can lead to guilt, followed by more restricting. 

Instead of forbidding yourself from eating your favorite treats, she recommends nourishing meals and snacks during the day and allowing yourself to eat a treat or two that you are craving. 

“In the context of already being adequately nourished, one or two Christmas cookies is not going to cause an out-of-control sugar binge or any ill health effects,” says McMordie. 

If you’re not able to eat sugar due to health reasons, she suggests using a baking-friendly sugar substitute in your favorite recipes or natural sources of sweetness like fruit, honey, or monk fruit. 

Teralyn Sell, PhD

Foods or beverages that contain caffeine can increase your heart rate, cause jitters, make it difficult to sleep, etc. Though caffeine doesn’t cause anxiety, it can certainly contribute to it.

— Teralyn Sell, PhD

Additionally, she says swapping in cultured yogurt or kefir for dairy products like sour cream or part of the butter in certain recipes can contribute more nutrition. 

"If you have a favorite main dish that's heavy in meat, try to swap in fish for that protein, or create a 'blend' of ground meat and mushrooms," says McMordie. 

Sell suggests eating foods higher in protein every three hours to keep your blood sugar regulated at all times and reducing or avoiding alcoholic beverages to stop you from experiencing an adrenaline rush and poor sleep. 

"But, most importantly, don't deprive yourself of goodies. Instead, use those treats in combination with high-quality socialization," Sell says. 

You Don’t Have to Make Perfect Food Choices

Not being perfect is ‘perfectly ok’ when it comes to eating, says Sell. “We live in this world that emphasizes perfection, especially when it comes to food. Instead, opt for choices that fit in the categories of ‘good, better, best’ and some days are just ‘good enough,’” she says. 

Once you get the hang of this approach, she says you can begin to improve your nutrition into a ‘more often than not’ status. “Also, start in one place, like stabilizing blood sugar by eating protein every 3 hours and not skipping meals. Then, you can build from there,” Sell says.

What This Means For You

Eating certain foods can affect your mood and overall mental well-being. There are ways to choose foods that are best for your mental health while still enjoying some of your favorite treats.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Radavelli-Bagatini S, Blekkenhorst LC, Sim M, et al. Fruit and vegetable intake is inversely associated with perceived stress across the adult lifespan. Clinical Nutrition. 2021;40(5):2860-2867.

  2. Carvalho KMB, Ronca DB, Michels N, et al. Does the mediterranean diet protect against stress-induced inflammatory activation in european adolescents? The helena study. Nutrients. 2018;10(11):1770.

By Cathy Cassata
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, medical news, and inspirational people.