7 Foods That Secretly Stress You Out
"Certain foods can contribute to our anxiety and stress by not providing our bodies with essential nutrients and straining our body's physiological systems, as well as increasing inflammation and the production of stress hormones," says Keri Glassman, M.S., R.D., C.N.D., founder of Nutritious Life. But what foods, exactly, are complicit in increasing our stress levels?
Related: 7 Foods for Stress Relief
Here are seven foods-and drinks!-to avoid if you want to help strip stress from your life.
1. White flour
White flour, as you know, has been processed and stripped of its most fiber-rich layers-its germ and bran. And, because white flour is refined and is missing its outer layer, explains Jonathan Valdez, M.B.A., R.D.N., C.S.G., C.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and media representative for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, it gets digested quickly and absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, causing rises in blood sugar levels. That releases cortisol into the body, causing stress.
Unfortunately, it's all too easy to consume white flour; it's in white breads, white rice and a bevy of other baked goods we enjoy. To avoid eating too much white flour, keep an eye on nutrition labels and look for products that are made of unrefined carbohydrates that don't cause rapid rises and drops in blood sugar, says Valdez, including whole grains such as quinoa and brown rice. "When you do indulge in white flour, try to pair it with foods that are high in fiber, like vegetables, to slow down its absorption in the bloodstream," Valdez instructs.
Salt is a sinfully good way to add flavor to food. But shaking too much onto your meals, can lead to excess sodium in your body-which can lead to fluid retention, higher blood pressure and hypertension, explains Glassman. "This puts more stress on your heart," she explains.
To keep your sodium and stress levels low, aim to consume less than 2,300 mg of salt each day, Glassman advises. To hit this number, you'll need to do more than reduce the amount of salt you add to home-cooked meals. When you hit the grocery store, be sure to opt for lower-sodium versions when buying packaged foods, Glassman adds, or skip the store-bought version of your favorite snack in favor of making it yourself-hello, DIY popcorn!
3. Processed meat
Processed meats include deli meats, hot dogs, sausage and beef jerky. To make these products tasty and longer-lasting on shelves, manufacturers pump them with preservatives and sodium, additives that may decrease your energy levels and increase your stress, says Yasi Ansari, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., a California-based certified specialist in sports dietetics.
Because processed meats are so common-bacon is one too!-it can be tough to get them out of our diets entirely. But you can try to focus on whole-food sources of animal products rather than processed-meat alternatives, Ansari says. "Choosing slices of freshly cooked meat, choosing leaner cuts of chicken, turkey or heart-healthy fish is a better alternative."
Read more: Top Vegetarian Proteins
You may have heard of cortisol, a steroid hormone better known as the "stress hormone," that is produced in response to stressful events. But did you know that your cortisol levels can spike after you sip a soda, eat a slice of cake or consume anything else packed with sugar?
"Continuous and excess intake of high-sugar foods will cause these consistently unstable blood sugar levels," says Valdez. "This puts stress on the body, and therefore, cortisol will be released to deal with the body's stress." Plus, he adds, "The imbalance of blood sugars, as well as the release of cortisol, causes us to feel stressed out and anxious."
Women should have no more than 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, of added sugar a day. (For men, the recommended cap is 38 grams, or 9 teaspoons.) "The best way to reduce sugar in our diet is to first understand where sugar lurks in our foods, which is pretty much everywhere, even in foods that don't actually taste sweet," says Valdez. Coffee drinks, sauces, salad dressings, yogurts and boxed cereals all contain high amounts of sugar.
Read more: How to Cut Back on Sneaky Added Sugars
"It is important to get used to reading food labels and sticking to the recommended daily amount of sugar," Valdez says. Sugar comes in many forms, so scan for everything from cane juice to barley malt, sucrose, dextrose, corn syrup, date sugar, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, maltodextrin, rice syrup and sorghum syrup on nutrition labels in order to reduce or skip sugar intake.
Another thing that can increase your cortisol levels? Caffeine. As it increases cortisol in the body, it also "can lead to a rapid heartbeat and increased blood pressure associated with anxiety," warns Glassman, "and can also inhibit the absorption of mood-boosting nutrients such as vitamin D and B vitamins." Plus, caffeine can also keep you from getting a good night's sleep-and that can lead to fatigue-induced stress.
To keep your much-needed coffee from stressing you out, limit coffee consumption to one to two cups a day-"especially caffeinated beverages with high sugar contents such as energy drinks or flavored lattes," says Glassman. Same goes for all caffeinated beverages.
If you're particularly sensitive to caffeine, you can also avoid it entirely, replacing coffee and other caffeinated drinks with noncaffeinated beverages like herbal tea, or even less-caffeinated and healthful beverages like green tea or matcha, Glassman recommends.
6. Fried foods
We've got bad news for any fried-food fiends: "Diets rich in fried food can cause decreased energy and sedentary lifestyles that can contribute to stress," warns Ansari. "They can cause people to feel sluggish and uncomfortable and, worse-less likely to stay active."
Rather than buying or making fried foods: "Use other forms of cooking methods such as sautéing or roasting with avocado oil," says Ansari, "or try steaming, grilling or baking."
"We often drink alcohol to destress after a long day," Valdez says. There's a reason for this: it's technically a depressant, which means it acts as a mild sedative, making us temporarily calm. But if we drink in excess, alcohol can actually exacerbate anxiety for those who already experience it, Valdez says. Perhaps worse, because alcohol is a depressant, he says, "It can also decrease our levels of serotonin, the hormone associated with good mood, causing increased anxiety."
So, what is excessive drinking? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines moderate drinking as one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. "More than this amount is too much for the liver to metabolize at once, which will cause excess alcohol to circulate in the blood," Valdez says.
You can cut back on your alcohol intake by avoiding drinking triggers, and by substituting other activities such as hobbies you enjoy or exercising-or even just spending more time with friends and family without alcohol involved, Valdez says. "If you feel the need to sip something at the end of a long, tiring day, try sipping some tea with a little lemon and honey. Chamomile and lavender teas especially have been found to have calming effects."
Some of the foods on this list taste good and we certainly don't want you to stress yourself out by trying to avoid them. The idea is to limit them and to eat foods that make you feel good-whether that's a kale smoothie or a bowl of ice cream from time to time.