These food trades won't work magic, but they can help when you feel stressed.

Lisa Valente, MS, RD
September 10, 2020
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Stressing out? You're not alone—in fact, stress affects all of us. Some stress can be good—it's what helps your body kick it into high gear to run away from a bad situation or give you motivation to prep for a big presentation. You probably already know that too much stress and chronic stress isn't good long term. It can increase inflammation in your body and mess with your mood, sleep, eating habits and overall well-being.

Food can actually play a role in how stressed you feel, or don't feel. When it comes to what's on your plate, a key thing to remember is not to stress out too much about the way you eat. Some days, you might be a veggie-eating star, and other days you may eat more convenience foods (you know, to hopefully make your life more convenient). Strict rules and worrying about what you're eating won't help you stress less.

Neither will snapping your fingers (I wish), but there are some small things you can do that might help. Getting outside, moving your body, taking a screen break, soaking in a bath and using essential oils may help reduce stress. There are also some foods that can aggregate or help relieve stress. Here are some simple food swaps you can make that may help you feel a little bit calmer.

Best Food Swaps to Make for Less Stress

1. Swap: White bread for oatmeal

Notice how I'm not saying ditch carbs here. Carbs are good for your body and your brain. They help you make the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. But, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Whole grains contain fiber and your body digests them more slowly to avoid blood sugar peaks and lows. Plus, oatmeal is a cozy, comforting breakfast. Try it topped with bananas and chocolate or add your favorite toppings.

2. Swap: Sausage for salmon

This isn't a perfect swap if you're craving meaty pizza or a sandwich with peppers and onions. But the protein you choose to put on your plate is important. Salmon contains omega-3 fats, which emerging research shows may help reduce anxiety. Processed meats have added preservatives, including sodium, which isn't great for your blood pressure. Aim to reduce processed meat consumption and eat fish twice a week. Try these yummy salmon recipes to get your fill.

3. Swap: A granola bar for nuts

I'm not about skipping snacks and getting hangry. But choosing smarter snacks may help keep your stress at bay. Granola bars sound healthy enough, but many of them are made with lots of added sugar. Nuts deliver healthy fats, fiber and protein which means your snack will have staying power (read: you're not hungry again in an hour). Plus, nuts have B vitamins, which can get depleted when we're stressed. You'll also get a potassium boost from nuts, which can help keep your blood pressure in a healthy range. (Try these other foods with more potassium than a banana.)

4. Swap: Gummy candy for dark chocolate

Many of us reach for sweets when we're stressed. Sugary candy is tasty, but can backfire as a stress-relieving snack due to blood sugar swings. You've probably heard that dark chocolate is good for you (phewph) and it can also be good for your stress levels, according to research. Aim to choose chocolate with 70% cocoa for the most good-for-you polyphenols.

5. Swap: Wine for herbal tea

Sorry to be a literal buzzkill with this swap, but even though alcohol may temporarily relieve some stress, it shouldn't be your go-to beverage. Alcohol is a depressant and can actually increase anxiety. It's OK to drink in moderation, one drink per day for women and two for men, especially if you have other healthy ways to cope with stress. A more relaxing drink choice? Herbal tea. Tea drinkers have lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Herbal teas are naturally caffeine-free—and caffeine can exacerbate anxiety in some people and interfere with sleep. A mug of chamomile may not be as sexy as a big glass of red wine, but your stress levels may decrease.

6. Swap: Cottage cheese for yogurt

Both of these high-protein foods are great snack choices. But when it comes to stress, yogurt may have a leg up thanks to probiotics, the good-for-your-gut bacteria. 50% of the dopamine and 95% of the serotonin—both mood-boosting chemicals—are produced in your gut. We're still learning more about how gut health impacts mood, but there's some evidence that probiotics can help you feel better. Yogurt is a natural source of probiotics, so eat up. Including other probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha in your diet can't hurt either.

If you're struggling with anxious or depressive thoughts or behaviors, speak to your doctor or call the National Alliance on Mental Illness hotline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).