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Nutrition and Stress

What is stress?

Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure [1]. Sometimes it may be more short term, such as being stuck in a traffic jam or having an argument, or more long term, like losing your job, substance abuse or family conflict. Symptoms of stress can be split into three categories: 

  • Physical symptoms – e.g., headaches, dizziness, muscle tension, and stomach problems.
  • Mental symptoms – e.g., difficulty concentrating, feeling overwhelmed, worrying, and forgetfulness.
  • Changes in behaviour – e.g., becoming irritable, sleeping too much or too little, avoiding certain places or people, and eating too much or too little [2].

Anxiety is similar to stress, but it tends to persist after a stressful situation is over.

How does stress affect eating habits?

There have been a number of studies surrounding how people’s eating habits change when they’re stressed. Around 40% of people increase their food intake when they are stressed, whereas another 40% of people tend to decrease their food intake. The remaining 20% of people don’t change their food intake when experiencing a stressful situation. Furthermore, the type of foods that most people gravitate towards when stressed are foods with a high fat and/or sugar content. These are comfort foods, such as fast food, crisps, and chocolate [3].

Although our energy needs do increase when we’re stressed, so do our nutrient needs [4]. This means that these highly processed foods may not be the best choice as they are usually low in vitamins and minerals. The British Dietetic Association (BDA) mentions several vitamins and minerals that can affect our mood when we don’t get enough of them. For example, a lack of iron in the diet can cause us to feel weak, tired, and lethargic; a lack of selenium can increase the chance of feeling depressed; and a lack of B vitamins can lead to tiredness, feeling depressed and irritability. Therefore, it is important that we continue to aim for a healthy, balanced diet when we’re stressed to avoid making things worse [5].

Carbohydrates are also an important factor in promoting good mood. Carbs are broken down into glucose when digested and are used largely for brain function. Not having enough glucose in your blood can lead to tiredness, weakness and feeling unfocused. This means it is essential that you eat enough carbohydrates to keep you feeling focused and alert, and to reduce the chance of becoming stressed. However, it is important to note that eating extra carbohydrates when your blood glucose is in a normal range won’t further boost brain power. Therefore, sugary drinks and snacks are unnecessary, if you are consuming a balanced diet containing healthy carbohydrate sources. These foods include wholegrain cereals and bread, rice and pasta and beans and pulses.

A problem that may be a result of stress is poor sleep, however, you may want to think before you reach for caffeine containing drinks. Caffeine can cause anxiety, irritability, and headaches if you consume too much, especially if you don’t normally drink it. It can also cause withdrawal symptoms if you stop consuming caffeine after having it on a regular basis and has been found to elevate cortisol levels, the main stress hormone in the body. This means that caffeine may actually be counterproductive if you are trying to reduce your stress levels. You may want to think about reducing you caffeine intake or swapping to decaffeinated drinks.

More recent studies have suggested the importance of the gut bacteria on stress [6]. We have a delicate balance of good and bad bacteria in our gut, and it is important to try to keep the levels of bad bacteria in the gut at a minimum. If levels of bad bacteria become too high, this can cause negative impacts on mental health and reduce our resilience to stressful events. Some recommendations to keep your gut healthy would be:

  • Eat foods containing probiotics, good bacteria that is found naturally in the gut – e.g., yoghurt and kimchi
  • Cut down on greasy foods which are harder to digest, such as fried foods, fatty meat
  • Eat plenty of fibre to aid digestion, found in wholegrains, fruit and vegetables
  • Eat regular meals for regular digestion
  • Switch to foods containing unsaturated fats, like olive oil, avocados, and nuts [7].

Top Tips for Nutrition and Stress

  1. Eat plenty of fruit and veg to prevent nutrient deficiencies
  2. Make sure you’re eating enough healthy carbohydrates to promote good brain function
  3. Think before reaching for caffeine when you haven’t had enough sleep
  4. Eat foods containing probiotics to promote good gut health
  5. Reach for healthy snacks over snacks high in fat and sugar


[1] https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/stress

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/feelings-symptoms-behaviours/feelings-and-symptoms/stress/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4214609/

[4] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/stress-and-health/

[5] https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/food-facts-food-and-mood.html

[6] https://atlasbiomed.com/blog/stress-anxiety-depression-microbiome/

[7] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/good-foods-to-help-your-digestion/

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Caroline Hill is a specialist menopause dietitian supporting women making dietary change. Caroline uses her extensive knowledge, skills and expertise of food and nutrition to help women manage their symptoms and weight during menopause. Caroline believes in providing sustainable, individualised, evidence-based advice to women making dietary change.

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