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How does stress affect what and how we eat?

Food options for stress reductionNutrition for Stress Management

Written by Mel Cronshaw, Nutrition Therapist from Momentum Health West Springs

Stress and nutrition are completely intertwined. Stress profoundly affects the choices we make around food and eating behaviours, and poor nutrition affects our ability to manage stress. This means it is not only important to reduce stress so we eat better, but to choose a healthier diet to support the stress we are trying to manage. So how do we break this vicious cycle? In this article I will explain how we can both eat better to reduce the impact of stress on the body, and how to modify our behaviour so consuming a healthy diet is possible during times of high stress.

The Effect of Stress on Health

I want to start by explaining how stress can affect the body. There are both symptoms, and health effects that are caused by chronic stress that span almost every system in the human body.

Studies show that if not treated, chronic stress could cause;

  • Chronic headaches/migraines
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Chronic pain
  • Weight gain, especially around the middle
  • Heart disease
  • Weakened immune system
  • Digestive issues like IBS
  • Oestrogen dominance in women (which causes worse PMS and menopausal symptoms)
  • Lowered testosterone in men
  • Reduced sexual desire and function in men and women
  • Reduced fertility

Although the evidence is clear for the above conditions, stress is likely a contributing factor to many other health issues. It is paramount that stress management be a priority in all of our lives as we manage all the physical and psychological stressors we are faced with every day. We can’t always quit our job or change our situation, but we can better support our body to manage stress better with both nutrition and lifestyle changes.

How does stress affect what and how we eat?

If this photo looks familiar, you may be suffering from something called night eating syndrome, a type of eating behaviour linked to chronic stress.

A typical lifestyle nowadays consists of starting the day with caffeine, missing breakfast, running on barely any food throughout the day (often low carb food in an attempt to manage weight), followed by extreme hunger and cravings for hyperpalatable foods (high salt, sugar and/or fat) in the evening, which often leads to binge type eating.

It is also not uncommon to see sleep issues in people with this type of behaviour.

The real problem here is not the food, but unmanaged stress hormones. When humans have a threat, either external and acute, or internal and chronic, adrenaline and cortisol spike to help us deal with the stress. When that threat goes away, or in our case, we finally sit down to relax and the end of a busy day, adrenaline lowers but cortisol remains elevated, and we know cortisol is the craving hormone. Often this can be a major barrier to change in attempts to either improve health or lose weight.

So what can we do?

Recommendations for Better Stress Management

The following are essential factors in managing stress levels and improving health outcomes.

  1. Nutritional Adequacy

Chronic stress can deplete several important nutrients like B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, and iron. This can also lead to further health issues and frequent infections if not addressed. Supplementation may be necessary to return these nutrients to an optimal level, but generally diet modification that includes sources of these nutrients is preferrable. There are also other supplements that are essential like Omega-3, vitamin D, and probiotics which might be recommended.

  1. Include Healthy Carbohydrates

There is a higher demand for carbohydrate rich foods during acute and chronic stress to help transport essential nutrients into the brain. Many of us choose to, or are told to restrict carbohydrates in an attempt to lose weight, but as a result stress is less manageable and food cravings can be worse. Low carbohydrate diets are not superior to other weight loss methods which include carbohydrates, so often this attempt can make things worse. It might be recommended for someone with chronic stress to actually consume a higher carbohydrate diet and to work on the timing of meals to feel more calm and in control. *Remember that no matter what you read or saw on social media, there is no association between consuming carbohydrates and weight gain.

  1. Practicing Stress Lowering Activities

Often we use food and alcohol as a way of coping with stress or emotions, but we know that both of these actually have a detrimental effect to physical and mental health long term. The research shows that the following activities are effective at reducing stress hormones, sometimes in a matter of minutes.

  • Exercise, especially walking.
  • Spending time outside in nature. In Japan they call this Shinrin Yoku which means forest bathing, and is actually prescribed by doctors.
  • Reading fiction. Reading a fiction book for only 6 minutes can reduce stress hormones by 70%. Self-help books on the other hand actually increase stress so please avoid during stressful times.
  • Practice mindfulness or meditation.
  • Yoga.
  • Getting massages or acupuncture.
  • Reducing screen time may help, especially at night.
  • Spending time with friends and family.
  • Doing things you enjoy or that bring you happiness.

The important thing here is to find what you enjoy and make time to do it often.

  1. Cutting Out the Caffeine

Although consuming caffeine seems like a normal part of the day, it can actually cause a lot of problems with stress management, particularly in women. When I ask my clients to give up caffeine, they aren’t receptive to the idea, since we often rely on caffeine for energy to get through the day. However once they do it, they never regret it. If you love coffee like I do, simply switch to decaf. It might just change your life.

  1. Adaptogens

Adaptogens are substances that enhance stress resistance in humans and protect the body against stress related damage. They can make you feel alert and sharp but also reduce the depressive and anxious state that stress can induce. There are many herbal or mushroom adaptogens which studies show are very effective for reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and improving sleep, cognitive function, and sexual health and function. They are very safe to take and if anything, provide more widespread health benefits, however some cannot be taken with certain medications so it is best to ask if you are unsure what to take.

If you feel like stress has taken over your life and is starting to affect your health, weight, and well-being, nutrition therapy might be beneficial. For questions, or to learn more about how Nutrition therapy can help, book a free 15 minute consultation with Mel.


Mel Cronshaw Nutrition Therapist in West Springs SW CalgaryMelissa Cronshaw helps patients to optimize their nutrition for health and guides patients through sustainable weight loss and the various stages of life, particularly for challenging periods like menopause. Mel is an internationally educated Nutrition Therapist, registered with CANNP in Canada, as well as a Registered Associate Nutritionist with the Association for Nutrition in the UK. She completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in Nutritional Science, specializing in clinical and sport nutrition at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. After graduating, she set up a private practice in the UK where she provided 1-1 personalized nutrition programs. She also regularly delivered presentations to various groups on a range of health and wellness topics including chronic fatigue syndrome, menopause, and breast cancer nutrition. After moving back to Calgary in 2021, she continues to deliver these presentations to gyms, employers and community groups.

Our childhood habits, lifestyle, jobs, family dynamic, as well as many other factors, contribute to the development of our eating habits which may be detrimental to our long term health. We all eat so differently, which is why personalization through evidence-based nutrition is the only effective way of achieving sustainable weight loss and making meaningful food choices. Mel will guide you through the research to discover and understand the most impactful nutritional habits for your needs. The areas Mel can help manage include, but are not limited to, weight loss, women’s health (menopause, PMS, PCOS, etc), type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arthritis, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, IBS, nutritional deficiencies and more. Nutrition and lifestyle practices have the potential to profoundly change the course of our life from a poor state of health to optimal wellness, health and vitality. To see how nutrition therapy can help you, book a 15 minute discovery call with Mel so she may answer any questions you may have.