Can what you eat affect your stress levels?

High levels of the stress hormone cortisol has been linked to food cravings and digestive health conditions.

Andy De Santis, RD 4 minute read April 28, 2021
stress eating

Your cravings may be linked to your stress levels. Getty

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that there is a strong connection between food, nutrition and stress. This relationship exists on a number of different levels and  often manifests itself in “stress eating,” or “emotional eating” — where people use food to deal with stressful situations.

In fact, studies show that when we are more stressed we tend to consume less fruits, vegetables and protein, and higher quantities of salty and sugary foods.

Why is that?

Quite a few things happen to the human body during stressful periods, including the release of the hormone cortisol (often referred to as the “stress” hormone) which increases blood sugar levels and encourages water and sodium retention, while inhibiting other bodily systems, like the digestive tract.

This partially explains why stress is a major trigger for digestive health issues in many people, especially those living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Cortisol also affects food choices and higher cortisol levels have been identified as driving food cravings and “reward-driven” food selections.

But we can fight back. Changing not only what, but how, we eat has significant potential to improve our resilience. Here are my top three tips on how to use food to manage your stress.

Eat more mindfully. Mindful eating boils down to being fully present during meal and snack time. It’s something that many of my clients lose sight of, but it has a massive role to play in reducing overall stress and cortisol levels. If you are someone who is constantly rushing at meal time and feels particularly stressed when eating but doesn’t know where to start in order to change this habit, this resource published by UCLA will help.

Eat more and lower glycemic carbohydrates. Popularized nutrition discourse on social media has convinced many people that carbohydrates are the enemy, yet a recent study out of the Nutrients journal found that eating more, higher quality carbohydrates may reduce cortisol levels. When I say “higher quality,” I mean is lower in glycemic index (GI) — these foods will be less likely to elicit a sharp surge in blood sugar levels.

Lower GI foods include steel cut oats, quinoa, whole grain bread and pasta, all types of legumes (lentils, chickpeas), and most fruits and vegetables.

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In fact, the European Food Research and Technology journal identified some lower GI foods such barley, brown rice and legumes as also playing a physiological role in reducing cortisol levels.

Foods on the higher end of the GI scale include more refined carbohydrates like baked goods, rice cakes, white bread, and certain types of food made with white flour — among others. If we use cereal as an example, all bran flakes will be on the lower end, whereas something like Rice Krispies or Special K will end up on the higher end. You can fine out more about the glycemic index and the GI rating of a longer list of foods here.

Be wary of over-monitoring and restricting.  Tracking and restricting food intake are two separate, but often related, activities that have the potential to increase stress and cortisol levels, respectively. I appreciate that different people choose to engage in these activities for different reasons, but at the very least, tracking and restricting intake is not suitable to engage in during particularly stressful times where doing so may further exacerbate your stress levels.

Bonus tip: Try meditation

I’ve written extensively about meditation and it’s just about impossible to deny the evidence that suggests its role in reducing stress, and improving both cardiovascular and digestive health. Given the vast accessibility to popular meditation apps like Headspace and Calm or guided sequences via YouTube, it represents a low-risk and potentially high reward strategy for those looking to improve their resilience to the stressors of daily life.

Andy is a registered dietitian and author who has operated a private practice in Toronto since 2015. He spends his free time eating, writing and talking about kale @AndyTheRD. He can be reached at



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