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The worst foods to eat when you're feeling stressed

We've all been guilty of reaching for the biscuit tin after a particularly trying day. But can relying on convenience food to help you feel calmer make the problem worse? We explore the foods to avoid when you're feeling frazzled.

We tend to choose unhealthy foods when we're feeling stressed - that's been backed up with research. But in the long run, we are likely making our poor concentration and anxiety worse.

One study found a correlation between high stress levels and diets which contained little in the way of fruit and vegetables. However, it's hard to know whether it was the food causing the research participants to feel stressed, or if their low mood in the first place caused them to make these dietary choices.

Nevertheless, Stephen Buckley, head of information at mental health charity Mind, believes there is a link between the foods we choose and how we feel:

"It's widely accepted that there is a connection between what we eat and how we feel. We know that fluctuations in blood sugar levels are associated with changes in mood and energy. And there is also research to suggest that getting enough of certain vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids can be important in maintaining good mental health," he explains.

Blood sugar and stress explained

When we eat foods that contain refined carbohydrates (think: white pasta, white bread, cakes, pizza, etc), it causes a big and sudden increase in blood sugar. In the short term, this can stimulate release of endorphins - so-called 'feel-good' hormones. But the effect is short-lived.

When our blood sugar suddenly becomes high, it causes a lot of the hormone insulin to be released - which allows our cells to use sugar for energy. This process very quickly brings our blood sugar right back down, sometimes to a lower level then it was before we ate.

This can have a big impact on our mood. When levels of sugar are too high it can make us feel unable to concentrate and anxious. Then when blood sugar levels suddenly drop it often makes people feel low in mood and energy.

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Gut and brain

Evidence is also starting to suggest that if your gut isn't happy, it is likely that your head isn't either. Scientists call this the 'gut-brain axis'.

For a healthy gut, we need to be eating foods which help good bacteria to thrive and overthrow the bad ones. Unfortunately, the foods we often associate as being comforting are those which do not support these good bacteria. This is bad news if you're already stressed out, because 'good' gut germs have been shown to play a role in creating serotonin, a chemical that makes us feel happy.

The foods to avoid

The following foods can cause inflammation within the body, reduce our good gut bacteria and, in several studies, seem to correlate with higher levels of stress and anxiety.

Sugary foods

Any processed food with more than 5 g of sugar per 100 g is classed as containing a medium level of sugar and is worth reconsidering. Regular offenders are snack bars, cereals, cakes and biscuits, fizzy drinks and fruity yoghurts.

Foods high in saturated fat

Any processed food with more than 1.5 g or more of saturated fat per 100 g is worth avoiding in times of stress. Examples include: pizza, ready meals, crisps, snack bars and pastry.

White carbs

Ditch white bread, rice and pasta. All of these have been processed to remove the wholegrain goodness that our gut bacteria love. Replace with brown/wholemeal/wholegrain versions instead.

Additionally, caffeinated drinks can increase feelings of anxiety in some people. If you're feeling stressed out, it might be worth trying decaffeinated drinks instead for a week or two to see if it makes a difference.

Stress-busting foods

Don't worry though; there are plenty of foods you can include in your diet which can improve gut health and potentially reduce your stress levels. These include:

High-fibre foods

Foods high in fibre provide a source of nourishment to your good gut bacteria.
Try: vegetables (with the skin on), whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds.

Healthy fats

Good fats, such as omega 3, have been shown to improve brain function and, with it, mood.
Try: oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, nuts and seeds (especially chia and flaxseeds).

Colourful fruit and vegetables

Aim for a plate that's as colourful as possible. Fruit and vegetables are high in antioxidants which help to reduce inflammation.

Look for: those which are vibrant in colour, as the deeper the colour, generally the richer their nutritional content.

Live foods

Evidence suggests that eating fermented foods can help maintain a healthy gut.
Try: live yoghurts, pickled foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, miso soups, and dark chocolate.

Putting it all into practice

It is easier said than done when making changes to your diet, but Buckley suggests:

"Good ways to promote a healthy diet and good mental health are to keep regular meal times, drink enough water each day and cut down on mood-altering products such as tea, coffee and alcohol. Aiming to have a diet that has a good mix of protein, slow-release carbohydrates like wholegrains or seeds and plenty of vegetables and fruit will also help."

Try the following tips too:

Find a healthier alternative

It's no good trying to cut out your favourite snack and replacing it with something you don't really like, as this will do nothing for your mood. Instead, find something that you like to eat that your gut does too.

For example, if you are a sucker for jelly sweets try swapping for a small handful of dried fruit.

Fail to prepare and prepare to fail

If you always have healthy food options available (particularly the ones you like) then you are less likely to find yourself running to the shop for your old pick-me-up.

It's been shown that having to choose foods can increase stress levels. But if you plan ahead and have a nourishing snack ready to go, not only do you not have to think about it, you are less likely to make a choice that you then feel guilty (and stressed!) about.

Reflect back

Pay attention to how you feel after eating and drinking. It could be a good idea, if you suffer from anxiety and stress, to keep a food and mood diary. That way at the end of the week you can reflect back and you may find there are some trigger foods which are affecting your mood.

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