Woman choosing healthy food over junk food.

You feel your muscles tense as the day wears on. A deadline is looming, your baby is crying or the boss is unhappy. Whatever the source of your stress and anxiety, the surest way to add to it is to reach for your favourite junk food—that packet of potato chips you’ve been resisting all week.

Sure, the intensity of the salt hitting your senses and the oh-so-satisfying crunch would bring most people immediate comfort and relief. After all, a lot of research goes into finding the so-called “bliss point” that help food companies create the greatest amount of craving for junk food and fast food.

Consequences and Effects of Eating Junk Food

But nutrition experts say giving in to junk food cravings like ice cream would most likely worsen your stress even though we believe they help us fight stress. And this can happen in the immediate few hours after and also in the longer term.

Fast food and junk food such as chocolate cake don’t fight stress in the long term.

“Potato chips, chocolate, cookies, and high sugar drinks are the first things most people reach for when they are feeling down and out,” says certified nutrition health coach Melody Chong from PanAsia Surgery Group.

“However, high amounts of salt can increase tension and high levels of sugar can create an energy spike initially then drop suddenly after.” And that means less energy to focus on the task at hand that needs your attention, which would have then relieved you of the stress of a task undone.

Why Junk Food Is Bad for Your Stress Levels

Most experts agree that these extreme fluctuations in blood sugar levels only serve to make us feel worse during stressful periods. A study[1] confirmed that “a poor diet that was high in saturated fats and [calories] lead to depression,” noted Dr Gary Wenk[2], author of Your Brain on Food.

“The food-mood relationship is maintained by neurotransmitters — chemical messages that relay thoughts and actions in our brain. Some such as serotonin have a relaxing effect, while others such as dopamine have a stimulating effect. The food we eat … create changes in the behaviour of these neurotransmitters, thus impacting our mood,” says Chong.

Think of the neurotransmitters as producing moderate waves of highs and lows in our brains or moods on a normal, stress-free day. Stress causes these waves to hit higher highs and lower lows. But eating junk food then makes them spike or drop further, exacerbating your stress.​

Food such as tofu can help to reduce stress.

Best Foods for Stress Reduction

So what types ​of foods would help reduce stress?​

The same study mentioned earlier showed that those who consumed more water, fibre, ascorbic acid, tryptophan (an essential amino acid) as well as other key minerals such as magnesium and selenium reported having a better mood overall.

Foods That Beat Stress

That means more wholegrains, dark leafy vegetables, tofu, fatty fish, chicken, avocado as well as beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. The study also suggested that the wider the variety of fruits and vegetables you have in your overall diet, the better for your mood. That means our mothers have been totally on point in nagging us to finish up our greens. It wasn’t just for our physical health, it was for better mental health too!

“Greens such as kale and bok choy are rich in chlorophyll and provide our blood with oxygen,” Chong adds.

As for beverages, avoid sugary or energy drinks. Herbal or other caffeine-free teas such as chamomile, peppermint and fruit teas are recommended as they provide refreshment without the stimulating effects of caffeine, which can heighten anxiety and even cause insomnia. A lack of sleep can also further worsen anxiety and depression.

Eat more leafy vegetables to reduce stress

Food for Stress

Experts say having a balanced, healthy diet is key to long-term stress management, and while certain foods and drinks can aggravate stress, this doesn’t mean you should avoid them completely but consume in moderation — the golden rule for everything, it seems.

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  1. Perez-Cornago. A., Zulet. M. A., Martinez. J. A.(2014). Association between mood and diet quality in subjects with metabolic syndrome participating in a behavioural weight-loss programme: A cross-sectional assessment. Nutritional Neuroscience, 18(3), 137-144.
    Retrieved February 2016 from doi:10.1179/1476830514y.0000000116
  2. Wenk, G. L. (2015, Apr 08). Recent Links Between Food and Mood: The Benefits Of Being A Mediterranean Omnivore [Website].
    Retrieved February 2016 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-brain-food/201504/recent-links-between-food-and-mood?collection=1073403