According to one survey, 38% of adults eat unhealthy foods or overeat during periods of stress. While it might seem like a pint of ice cream or bag of chips offers temporary relief, new research reveals that eating junk food could negatively impact your mood.
Research shows stress is associated with higher fat intake. A spike in cortisol levels (when stressed) increases appetite. That can create a bigger problem when you reach for fried, salty or sweet foods that have little nutritional value and a lot of excess calories, explains Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, author of “Total Body Diet for Dummies.” These foods increase inflammation and cause your blood sugar to spike, which can tank your mood.
Factors such as oxidative stress, inflammation and insulin resistance can trigger brain changes associated with depression; diet can combat these mood-altering brain changes. While the foods you choose have an impact on your mental well-being, the reverse is also true: Your mood can influence your appetite.
Men and women had different responses to poor eating habits, according to the study, published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience. “Mental distress in men was associated with the least healthy dietary patterns [and] women were less likely to experience mental well-being compared to men if they didn’t follow a healthy diet and lifestyle,” explains researcher Lina Begdache, PhD, RD, assistant professor at Binghamton University.
“A healthy diet and exercise are needed for both genders. [But] women may need to pay closer attention to their diets and exercise as they may be more sensitive to dietary variations.” This may be in part because women’s brains have more neural connectivity (or regions) between cortices, making a healthy diet even more important for their mental health, says Begdache.
Begdache found that a Mediterranean diet was associated with greater mental well-being, especially in women. A 2018 literature review supports that finding: People who followed a strict Mediterranean diet, which included lots of fish, nuts, vegetables and fruits, had a 33% lower risk of being diagnosed with depression compared to those who ate a so-called western diet that was high in processed meats, trans fats and alcohol.
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet and spending time in nature can help improve well-being and alleviate depression. It’s also important to find productive ways to control stress. Instead of heading to the kitchen in search of something sweet or salty the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, try journaling, reading a book or calling a friend. “Moving your body with bursts of physical activity is good at alleviating every day pressures and stress while also keeping your waistline in check,” says Retelny.