Effect of Diet on Stress

Stress levels have reached an all-time high. Ongoing events have amplified existing issues; for example, a recent study revealed that nearly 40% of participants had experienced some degree of distress as a result of COVID-19, and that an additional 16% were highly distressed “and likely in need of mental health services” 1. In many places, fast food and ultra-processed foods are a growing portion of the average person’s diet. However, diet has a significant impact on stress and immune health.  

Humans experience stress and other emotions that affect their feeding behaviors and selection of diet 2. Stress triggers an individual’s drive for soda and sweet or fatty comfort foods 3. Concurrently, during times of stress, individuals tend to lower their intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole foods. This, in turn, leads to a higher risk of insulin resistance, excess visceral fat, and type 2 diabetes—and overall stress 4

The combination of stress and poor diet is particularly dangerous to health. An animal model study in which chronically stressed rodents were fed a junk food diet found that junk food alone did not result in an increase in visceral fat among the rodents—but when the animals were also stressed, the combination of poor diet and stressincreased visceral fat and the risk of early metabolic disease 5.  

Research has also found data in humans that aligns with animal studies. A recent study demonstrated that, over several years, highly stressed maternal caregivers exhibited more frequent compulsive eating behaviors and had increased abdominal fat 6

Conversely, research has shown that certain types of diets may help alleviate stress. Population-based studies have found that diets rich in whole foods were associated with not only lower levels of stress, but lower levels of anxiety and depression as well. In contrast, a typical Western diet was linked to a greater propensity for poor mental health 7.  

More specifically, a range of vitamin C- or magnesium-rich foods may help reduce stress levels 8. Certain foods such as polyunsaturated fats, including various vegetables and omega-3 fats, may further help regulate cortisol levels 9

The gut microbiome impacts brain function, but also moods and behaviors; brain areas and neurotransmitters that are involved in mood and appetite are likely to mediate this relationship. A slew of other mechanisms have been laid forth, but much remains to be studied in future research 11

Finally, the way we eat is equally as important as what we eat. Mindful eating during pregnancy, particularly among overweight, low-income women, has the potential to reduce stress eating and improve overall control of glucose levels 10

Though existing knowledge holds a lot of potential for improving nutrition and stress, research on the influence of diet on stress remains somewhat limited to date, with some studies so far being less rigorous than is preferred. In the future, additional research is required to be able to develop clear, evidence-based guidelines. 


1. Taylor, S. et al. COVID stress syndrome: Concept, structure, and correlates. Depress. Anxiety (2020). doi:10.1002/da.23071 

2. Fradin, D. & Bougnères, P. T2DM: Why epigenetics? Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism (2011). doi:10.1155/2011/647514 

3. Lim, S., Tellez, M. & Ismail, A. I. Chronic Stress and Unhealthy Dietary Behaviors among Low-Income African-American Female Caregivers. Curr. Dev. Nutr. (2020). doi:10.1093/CDN/NZAA029 

4. Nutrition and Cognitive Health A Webinar | National Academies. Available at: https://www.nationalacademies.org/event/11-19-2020/nutrition-and-cognitive-health-a-webinar. (Accessed: 8th December 2022) 

5. Aschbacher, K. et al. Chronic stress increases vulnerability to diet-related abdominal fat, oxidative stress, and metabolic risk. Psychoneuroendocrinology (2014). doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.04.003 

6. Radin, R. M., Mason, A. E., Laudenslager, M. L. & Epel, E. S. Maternal caregivers have confluence of altered cortisol, high reward-driven eating, and worse metabolic health. PLoS One (2019). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0216541 

7. Lewis, N. A. & Oyserman, D. When Does the Future Begin? Time Metrics Matter, Connecting Present and Future Selves. Psychol. Sci. (2015). doi:10.1177/0956797615572231 

8. Diet for Stress Management: Carbs, Nuts, and Other Stress-Relief Foods. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-diet-for-stress-management. (Accessed: 8th December 2022) 

9. Soltani, H., Keim, N. L. & Laugero, K. D. Diet quality for sodium and vegetables mediate effects of whole food diets on 8-week changes in stress load. Nutrients (2018). doi:10.3390/nu10111606 

10. Epel, E. et al. Effects of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention on Distress, Weight Gain, and Glucose Control for Pregnant Low-Income Women: A Quasi-Experimental Trial Using the ORBIT Model. Int. J. Behav. Med. 26, 461–473 (2019). doi: 10.1007/s12529-019-09779-2. 

11. Bremner, J. D. et al. Diet, stress and mental health. Nutrients (2020). doi:10.3390/nu12082428