Nutrition & Stress

Mental health is an area of nutrition which has always intrigued me but to be honest, I’ve never really known much about. Earlier this week, I was presented the opportunity to speak as part of a ‘PHD Survival Guide’ session at the Postgraduate Students of Otago, Christchurch (PSOC) Symposium. Graduates shared stories of high stress, dejection, financial concerns, and long hours tucked up in the lab or library, nights and weekends, trying to move forward with an experiment or complete their thesis. With this audience, it seemed only natural to shed some light on the relationship between nutrition and stress. This opportunity gave me the wee nudge I needed to brush up on my knowledge and review some of the latest research in the field. Nutrtion and mental health is an area of research that has come a long way over the past decade, but there’s a long way to go. Keep reading for a snippet into what our talk covered and hopefully you too may learn something along the way.

Our brains requires a constant supply of fuel which we get from the foods we consume. The fuel we choose directly impacts the structure and function of our brain, and ultimately our mood.

Fuelling our vehicles with premium fuel consisting of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants will nourish the body and protect it from stress. Unfortunately, when we consume low-premium fuels, or in fact forget to fuel our brains at all, our vehicles can start to underperform.

Stress is a totally normal physiological response, we all experience it to some degree when we feel challenged or overwhelmed. Stress enables us to cope with difficulty, fight danger, it enables us to persevere and is key for survival. Too much stress, however, can be detrimental to our health and well-being.

Stress can impact the food choices we make when it comes to fuelling our vehicles. It affects where the body stores fat and your ability to burn fat as fuel. Stress frequently causes us to crave high-carbohydrate, high-fat ‘comfort foods’ and leads to overeating or in some individuals, under-eating.


What we see in acute stress (the most common form of stress) is that the body releases a hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone along with several other molecules from the same family. Corticotropin-releasing hormone and its brothers and sisters act to inhibit appetite. By inhibiting the appetite, they move your attention away from things like finding food so you can focus on dealing with the stress. Makes sense right? However eventually the energy used to deal with the stress needs to be replaced and so the body cries out for food with little glucocorticoids (hormones) which start to appear in the blood.

These little glucocorticoids ultimately work to start stimulating the appetite again and store energy. This occurs through a number of mechanisms:

  1. Glucocorticoids increase fat storage. How? By increasing the activity of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase. Lipoprotein lipase breaks down triglycerides (fats), the fat molecules are used by the body as energy or stored in fatty tissue for later use. We see increased storage of fat, particularly visceral fat, in the belly, where lipoprotein lipase activity is higher.
  2. Secondly, glucocorticoids stimulates the appetite by two different mechanisms
    1. It reduces the sensitivity of the brain to leptin, which normally signals when you feel full. Therefore, the brain does not process when you feel full as effectively.
    2. It increases the production of ghrelin, a hormone which signals when you feel hungry. With more ghrelin circulating, you feel more hungry.
  3. Finally, an increase in glucocorticoids can increase insulin. Insulin suppresses what we call the ‘reward pathways’. The food we eat must, therefore, be MORE rewarding to achieve the same effect. Individuals are therefore more inclined to crave what we call ‘comfort foods’ which are typically higher in sugar and fat.

Typically, these three factors working together can result in individuals overeating after dealing with stress. However, on the flip side, exposure to stress also suppresses appetite in a number of individuals, particularly this is seen in unrestrained eaters.

So what determines if you are an under or over-eater in times of stress?

Studies suggest that if you are typically an emotional eater, you are more likely to prefer highly palatable foods and overeat in times of stress. Unfortunately, this tendency is determined early in life. Poor nutrition or stress in utero is more likely to contribute to emotional eating tendencies later on, as can maternal obesity during pregnancy.

While we may not have total control of these factors, there is still hope to change the way we fuel our vehicles in times of stress. Continue reading for some practical tips and tricks to make selecting premium fuels that little bit easier.

Practical Tips & Tricks to Good Nutrition During Stressful Times

A little planning goes a long way

Research tells us it is much harder to make healthier choices eating out – especially when the downtown lunch scene is full of temptations that wouldn’t be found at home. What we also know, is that often when you are busy, the idea of packing a lunch or making dinner creates a whole new stress response in itself – it can seem daunting and easier to rely on picking something up at the local café. Have a go at these simple strategies to make eating at home a whole lot simpler.

  1. Cook once, eat twice. Or cook once eat all week. Whatever works for you. If you’re like me and get sick of a meal after you’ve had it two days in a row, try just cooking double the volume of dinner and taking the leftovers for lunch.
  2. Your freezer is your best friend. Buying frozen when you’re short on time is such a convenient way to cook and you don’t lose any of the nutritional value. If you know you’ve got something due or a deadline to meet, prep in advance and store some frozen soups and stews in the freezer so when you’re mid-meltdown with nothing to eat, its ready to be pulled out and defrosted. You can even have pre-cut veges like pumpkin and squash frozen for when you want to cook a healthy meal but don’t have a free hour to spend chopping. 
  3. Prepare pantry and fridge snacks when you are feeling ahead – healthy foods like carrot, apples, celery, nuts and grain crackers make awesome snacks. Then when you’re freaking out and need to eat something there’s something waiting to be munched.
  4. Remove the temptation of yummy nutrient-dense snacks. If you’re in a stressful situation – maybe don’t have the cakes lying around and the challenge foods at eye level and know that you can bring them back in later. Saying no once at the supermarket saves saying no fifteen times at the pantry.

Practice mindfulness

It is thought that in times of stress, the majority of individuals who tend to overeat are trying to distract themselves. To be mindful is to be more aware of each moment in your day as it happens. Becoming more mindful helps reduce, stress and anxiety. The simple suggestions below are aimed to help build awareness around stressful eating.

  1. Challenge yourself – ask yourself why you are eating? Are you actually hungry? What have you already had to eat today? When was your most recent meal? 
  2. Get caught up in the heat of a craving and forget to challenge yourself? – try posting sticky notes where you keep your snacks to remind yourself to be mindful – am I hungry or am I stressed?
  3. Eat what you like but do it at the table. No more nibbles and snacks in front of the fridge or pantry. If you want a slice of last nights pizza, heat it up, put it on a plate and sit down. BUT make sure you enjoy it, no guilt, because the thing is you probably bloody well deserve it. 
  4. Know your triggers and stresses. For example sleep, we know that too little sleep increases appetite hormones like ghrelin by approx. 22%. This means that after a poor nights sleep you are going to feel more hungry. On top of that, your willpower to make healthy choices is going to be significantly reduced. Build awareness, so you can get prepared by carrying snacks to help regulate your blood sugars throughout day and keep your emotions on a better playing field.

Get active – every little bit counts

A better diet can improve your stress levels, but it’s only one part of treatment. It’s important to note that just like you cannot exercise out of a bad diet, you also cannot eat your way out of feeling depressed or anxious.

I’m not an expert on exercise by any means but nutrition and exercise go hand and hand to creating a balanced lifestyle. Incorporating some more activity into each day can be as simple as these minor changes:

  1. Take the further away car-park and choose the stairs
  2. Grab a basket at the supermarket and work the arms while you shop
  3. While waiting for the bus or a pick-up, see how many steps you can log
  4. If you’re talking on the phone, walk and talk
  5. Try some core which you watch your favourite tv show. 

Whatever your call, start small.

Whatever change you plan to make to manage your nutrition in times of stress, start small. Maybe it is as simple as adding fruit to your breakfast. Making slow, sustainable changes will mean your goals are easier to maintain in the long term.

If you try something new and it doesn’t work, try something else. There really is no single right way to deal with stress, but we know that fuelling your body with that premium fuel is certainly going to make dealing with it that little bit easier.

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