Nutritional Needs in Times of Stress

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Stress is like taxes. It’s inevitable, will never go away, and we all have to deal with it.

A little stress is a good thing. It may motivate us to move and get things started. Chemicals in the brain, known as neurotrophins, enhance and connect the links between the neurons in our brains. Navigating stress may build resilience and boost your immunity in the short term. If we had zero stress, we’d likely get nothing done.

But what about when you're experiencing more than just a little stress? What if it's almost constant?

Recently one of our readers reached out to ask about meeting “nutritional needs in times of stress.” It turns out that what you eat can have an impact on your mental health, so "lettuce" take a closer look at food and mood and other ways to deal with stress.

Food and Mood:

It’s no surprise that we crave comfort foods when we’re feeling stressed. Previous animal and human research indicates that energy-dense foods like chips, chocolate, and ice cream may offer some pain relief by tapping into our dopamine receptors. Tasty food provides feel-good memories that may bring some joy when we’re feeling down. 1, 2

Nutritious food may also be stress-relievers. A study of 150 healthy women  evaluated responses to a socially-evaluative stressor. Subjects were assigned to one of five conditions based on a 2 x 2 x 1 situation: food type (healthy versus unhealthy) x 2 (timing of eating: during stress anticipation or after the stressor) + 1 (no food control). Outcomes of stress that the team measured included mood,  cognition, rumination, salivary cortisol, heart rate change, and pre-ejection period.

Healthy and unhealthy comfort eating did not reduce reactivity or improve recovery of psychophysiological stress versus the control. No differences in reactivity or recovery were noted by the type of comfort food consumed. Researchers believe that swapping unhealthy food with healthy food will not result in adaptation to stressors, but can alleviate the negatives of unhealthy food intake in times of stress including abdominal weight gain and increases in blood sugar. 3

Fruit for Feelings:

Researchers believe that we can be conditioned to crave healthy food during stressful conditions. In a study of 100 participants, researchers temporarily combined perceived stress with Pavlovian conditioning intervention of progressive muscle relaxation. Subjects with moderate to severe perceived stress were randomly assigned to a paired intervention or unpaired control group for 1 week.

Following the paired intervention, the subjects’ negative moods were evaluated right before and after fruit intake to look at intervention effects. After the intervention, intake of fruit improved negative mood more when compared to the control group. Post-intervention, there was not a significant difference in fruit intake or typical comfort foods in the groups. More research is needed to validate this small study. 4

More Produce, Better Mood?

A systematic review offers more evidence in recommending fruit and vegetables for better mental health. Of the 5911 studies reviewed, 61 were used for analysis. The research that was analyzed focused primarily on depression, depressive symptoms as well as overall and mental well-being, quality of life, sleep, stress, nervousness or happiness, satisfaction with life, optimism, creativity, self-esteem, anxiety, mild psychiatric disorders, distress, or attempted suicide.

The most significant results suggested that high total consumption of fruits and vegetables may promote increased levels of optimism and self-efficacy as well as lower levels of psychological distress and protection against symptoms of depression.

Specific subgroups showed the most promise. These included green leafy vegetables, berries, and citrus fruit. The general recommendation is to eat at minimum 5 servings of fruit and vegetables daily for mental health. A limitation of this review is that the studies used were of various methodologies and different populations, so results may not be equally compared. 5

Mediterranean Diet and Stress:

In addition to produce “producing” a better mood, a Mediterranean-style diet may also alleviate stress. A recent randomized control trial of 152 adults with self-reported depression attended MedDiet cooking classes for 3 months and took fish oil supplements for 6 months, or participated in social groups for 3 months. Evaluations were done at baseline, 3, and 6 months, and included mental health, quality of life, dietary questionnaires, and blood samples for fatty acid analysis.

At 3 months, the MedDiet group had a higher MedDiet score with higher intake of vegetables, fruit, nuts, beans, whole grains, and a variety of vegetables. Lower intake of unhealthy snacks was also observed as well as reduced consumption of red meat and chicken.

The MedDiet group had lower rates of depression and improved mental health scores. Lower depression scores were correlated with an increased MedDiet score. Some associations were also seen with increased omega-3-fatty acid intake. 6

What Should We Do?

While chocolate may improve your mood temporarily, it’s not a long-term solution to dealing with stress. If you’re in a state of chronic stress, cortisol is released, which lowers levels of the hormone leptin (that promotes feelings of fullness) while increasing the hormone ghrelin (that raised your appetite). 2

Here are some better ways to deal with stress:

  1. Adopt a Mediterranean diet. It’s not only beneficial to metabolic health, but may also improve mental health.
  2. Take a walk! Exercise helps release endorphins to help you feel better.
  3. Increase omega-3 fatty acids in your diet with salmon, mackerel, walnuts, chia seeds, and ground flaxseeds.
  4. Reduce alcohol and processed food. While cookies or cocktails are often grabbed during stressful times, they may exacerbate depression and stress and increase the chance of stress eating.
  5. Get more sleep. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of solid sack time every night. Chronic insomnia or poor sleep increases cortisol, a hormone that’s linked with increased cravings for sweets and calorie-dense foods.
  6. Do a good deed. Helping others will help elevate your mood and feed your soul. Finding some purpose in life improves resilience, which may help reduce stress.
  7. Talk to a friend or therapist. Find support when you’re feeling down or overly stressed out.

By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD

Free Handout: 6 Ways to Deal with Stress

6 Ways to Deal with Stress Nutritional Needs in Times of Stress


  1. Tryon MS, DeCant R, Laugero KD. Having your cake and eating it too: a habit of comfort food may link chronic social stress exposure and acute stress-induced cortisol hyporesponsiveness. Physiol Behav. 2013 Apr 10;114-115:32-7. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2013.02.018. Epub 2013 Mar 15. PMID: 23500173.
  2. Stress and Health | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  3. Finch LE, Cummings JR, Tomiyama AJ. Cookie or clementine? Psychophysiological stress reactivity and recovery after eating healthy and unhealthy comfort foods. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2019 Sep;107:26-36. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2019.04.022. Epub 2019 May 1. PMID: 31075612; PMCID: PMC6635016.
  4. Finch LE, Cummings JR, Lee SC, Tomiyama AJ. A Pavlovian Intervention to Condition Comforting Effects of Fruits. Psychosom Med. 2021 Nov-Dec 01;83(9):1050-1057. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000001008. PMID: 34747584; PMCID: PMC8580215.
  5. Gbska D, Guzek D, Groele B, Gutkowska K. Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Mental Health in Adults: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2020 Jan 1;12(1):115. doi: 10.3390/nu12010115. PMID: 31906271; PMCID: PMC7019743.
  6. Parletta N, Zarnowiecki D, Cho J, Wilson A, Bogomolova S, Villani A, Itsiopoulos C, Niyonsenga T, Blunden S, Meyer B, Segal L, Baune BT, O'Dea K. A Mediterranean-style dietary intervention supplemented with fish oil improves diet quality and mental health in people with depression: A randomized controlled trial (HELFIMED). Nutr Neurosci. 2019 Jul;22(7):474-487. doi: 1080/1028415X.2017.1411320. Epub 2017 Dec 7. PMID: 29215971.
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