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Can Diet Reduce Stress?

Don't believe everything you hear about stress-busting foods.. Nutrition Diva sorts fact from fiction to see which foods really can reduce stress and anxiety. 

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #333

A majority of Americans now report living with moderate to high levels of stress. As many of us know all too well, reaching for sweets or other comfort foods is a typical coping mechanism. And if that weren't bad enough, new research suggests that when we're stressed, those comfort calories may lead to weight gain more quickly. 

Wouldn’t it be great if there were foods or nutrients that defused anxiety and warded off the negative effects of daily stress? No wonder that I see so many magazine and web articles about “stress-busting foods!”

Unfortunately, a lot of these are just puff pieces with little to no scientific basis. Sometimes, however, journalists interview actual scientists about their research. The problem is that researchers sometimes use the word "stress" to mean something very different than what the general population thinks of as stress - and that often leads to confusion.

Physiological Stress vs. Psychological Stress

When we say we’re stressed, we usually mean that we feel overwhelmed or anxious - too many demands, deadlines, and worries, and not enough time, money, and energy to get it all done.

Researchers, on the other hand, often measure physiological stress responses, which don’t necessarily correspond to our psychological experience. So, when they report that a food or nutrient has an effect on “stress,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll feel better or worse when you eat it.

Let me give you an example:

Do Refined Carbs Cause Stress?

In a story on the connection between diet and stress, researcher Robert Ludwig recently told NPR’s Morning Edition about an experiment he did on obese teenage boys, in which the boys who ate highly-processed cereal for breakfast had higher levels of adrenalin (a stress hormone) than those who ate a high protein breakfast instead. The boys who ate more protein were also less hungry and ate fewer calories at lunch. Chalk one up for a high protein breakfast!

See also: What’s Wrong with this Breakfast?

Unfortunately, no-one asked the boys about their mood or perceived stress level, so we don’t know whether the different meals had any effect on whether they felt any more or less stressed. Nonetheless, if you heard the piece, you probably concluded (as did the reporter) that eating lots of refined carbs and sugar will make you feel more stressed and anxious.  ;

Or Do Refined Carbs Calm You Down?

But hang on: In her book The Serotonin Power Diet, Dr. Judith Wurtman claims that a big dose of refined carbohydrates is exactly what you should eat to feel more relaxed and happy. That's because refined carbohydrates promote the production of serotonin, a "feel-good" neurotransmitter. 

So which is it? Are we supposed to eat carbs, or avoid them to beat stress? 

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About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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