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Stoke or Choke Stress

By Debbie Zimmerman

When you are having a stress-filled day at work, do you find yourself gravitating toward vending machines for a little comfort? At home, do you grab for the chips, dip your hand into the cookie jar or stare into the refrigerator till something jumps at you? Most of us are all too familiar with stress eating, but did you know there are foods you can eat to beat stress? Today, we take our deep dive into stress management and the power of your fork to either “stoke” or “choke” your stress.

When stressed, most people throw caution to the wind and gorge themselves on heavy, meat-packed meals, fast foods, take-out, fried foods, chocolates, cookies, pastries, and oftentimes, alcohol. Let’s face it--we’ve all searched for comfort in a meal, but that isn’t a good solution.

When you’re turning to unhealthy foods you may feel better temporarily, but in the long run, you will feel worse. When your body isn’t getting the right nutrition, you can begin to feel less energetic, more lethargic, and in some cases less able to concentrate and focus. All of this can lead to even more stress.

Foods that Choke Stress

If you’ve been feeling stressed out, it’s important to know which foods to choose and which to avoid when it comes to combating stress and helping you to deal with feelings of anxiety. The best way to fight stress is to have a healthy, balanced diet that includes a moderate number of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans/peas, and lentils. Choosing these stress-busting foods will help to heal and calm your mind permanently, rather than providing a temporary fix.

Some of the best stress-fighting foods include:

  • Avocado – Avocados or alligator pears are a creamy and versatile fruit that can be eaten in a range of different ways whether you enjoy it raw, made into sauces, dressings and dips, or in a smoothie. These nutrient-dense fruits have the properties to stress-proof your body, thanks to their high glutathione content which specifically blocks the intestinal absorption of certain fats which cause oxidative damage. Avocados also contain higher levels of vitamin E, folate, and beta-carotene than any other fruit, which boosts their stress-busting properties. However, be careful with portion control when eating avocado, as it is high in fat.

  • Blueberries – If you’re feeling stressed out and reaching for snacks, swapping chocolate or chips for one of the best superfoods is a great way to help you deal with your stress levels and achieve a higher level of calm. Blueberries have some of the highest levels of antioxidants, especially anthocyanin, which means that this berry has been linked to a wide range of health benefits including sharper cognition, better focus, and a clearer mind—all of which can help you to better deal with stress.

  • Chamomile Tea – Of course, it’s not all about what you’re eating when it comes to managing stress; what you’re drinking can also alleviate or worsen the stress you're feeling. Drinking liquids that are high in sugars and caffeine, such as coffee, energy drinks, or soda, can actually increase your stress levels if consumed regularly. Chamomile tea has long been used as a natural bedtime soother, and it has also been used in clinical trials, which determined that chamomile tea is effective in reducing the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder.

  • Chocolate – Although it’s usually seen as an unhealthy treat, there is an undeniable link between dark chocolate and our mood. Studies have shown that eating chocolate can actually make you happier. However, that doesn’t mean that you can start munching on chocolate bars every time you're stressed out. Chocolate works best as a de-stressor when eaten in moderation and as part of a healthy and balanced diet. One ounce of vegan dark chocolate (60 % or more) in particular is best for you, as it contains more flavanols and polyphenols, two hugely important antioxidants which can help combat stress. Just like avocado, chocolate is very high in fat, especially saturated fat, and portion size should be limited.

  • Oatmeal – Oatmeal is great in that it can be filling comfort food, but also has a large number of healthy properties to actually make you feel better from the inside out. A complex carbohydrate, eating oatmeal causes your brain to produce higher levels of the feel-good chemical serotonin, helping you to feel calmer and less stressed.

  • Walnuts – If you’re looking for a healthy snacking option that will help you to stay better in control of your stress levels, walnuts are a great choice according to Penn State researchers. There is no denying the sweet, pleasant flavor of walnuts and they can be a tasty snack for in-between meals or as part of a dessert. A one-ounce (28 grams or 1/4 cup) serving is recommended.

  • Pistachios – Another food that is great for snacking on and can also help to combat stress and anxiety in the long term is pistachios. Simply eating a snack-size portion of pistachios per day can lower vascular constriction when you are stressed, putting less pressure on your heart by further dilating your arteries. Along with this, the rhythmic, repetitive act of shelling pistachios can actually be quite therapeutic!

  • Green Leafy Vegetables – Leafy greens should be a pivotal part of anyone’s diet. Along with helping to combat stress, leafy greens are full of nutrients and antioxidants which help to fight off disease and leave your body feeling healthier and more energized. Dark leafy greens, such as spinach or kale, are especially good for you since they are rich in folate, which helps your body to produce more mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which is a ‘feel-good’ chemical. Making leafy greens a part of your diet will help you to feel happier and less stressed out overall.

  • Fermented foods – Eating fermented foods such as tempeh or a plant-based yogurt can help to keep your gut healthy, which in turn will help to improve your mental health, and reduce stress and anxiety levels. The beneficial bacteria which are found in fermented foods actually have a direct effect on your brain chemistry and transmit positive mood and behavior-regulating signals to your brain via the vagus nerve.

Foods that Stoke Stress

According to a study published in Culinary Medicine written by Uma Naidoo, MD, foods and substances that may contribute to stress and anxiety fall into three major categories: caffeine, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners.

  • Caffeine: according to the article, “caffeine overstimulates regions of the brain that process threat.” According to an experimental psychology research study, caffeine stimulates the region of the brain that “…is activated when a predator is closing in on you.” Further, caffeine shuts down the part of the brain that regulates anxiety. Results of studies show that less than 100 mg of caffeine per day had little to no effect on anxiety; 100-400 mg of caffeine per day showed mixed results. However, having over 400 mg of caffeine per day showed significant increases in anxiety. Spoiler alert: it was noted that one Starbucks venti contained 475 mg of caffeine, so drink with caution.

  • Alcohol: according to the study, “…the relaxation that alcohol provides comes at a significant price.” Dr. Naidoo states, “Regular alcohol intake can lead to significant disruption in sleep quality and this may be even more pronounced in people with anxiety. For those who suffer from social anxiety, Dr. Naidoo says, “Social anxiety more than quadruples the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.”

  • Artificial Sweeteners: research shows that artificial sweeteners can trigger anxiety and panic attacks. According to Dr. Naidoo, artificial sweeteners increase the ‘bad’ gut bacteria and have a negative effect on anxiety. “Sweeteners like aspartame have been directly linked with anxiety and should be avoided, or at the very least used in moderation.”

In his video vignette, “The Effects of Animal Protein on the Stress Hormone,” Dr. Michael Greger compares the impact of two different meals on the levels of stress hormones in the blood. “A single meal high in animal protein can nearly double the level of stress hormone in the blood within a half hour of consumption. Instead, give someone some barley soup, and a vegetable stir-fry on rice, and the stress hormone level goes down after the meal.” He described the health outcome of constant intake of animal protein. “Imagine if you did the meat, fish, dairy meal-after-meal, day after day. You could chronically stimulate your stress response axis, and increase the release of vasoactive hormones that can increase your blood pressure. And, all that extra cortisol release has been linked to increased risk for elevated blood levels of insulin, triglycerides, and cholesterol.”

Putting it All Together

In a prior article on stress, we saw the negative consequences of chronic stress and learned simple techniques to tame our reactions in stressful situations. Here we learned the power of our fork to either “choke” or “stoke” our stress hormone. Reading and knowing the knowledge is the first step, putting the information into action may be more difficult.

If you need help in this area, give me a call. As a Lifestyle Medicine and Health Coach, I will partner with you to improve your quality of life and attain self-directed, lasting changes. From personal training to whole food, plant-based coaching, I have the experience, knowledge, and skills to help you attain and maintain optimal health and vitality.


Debbie is the founder of PhytoFit, LLC; her mission is to teach the benefits of a whole food, plant-based lifestyle for optimal health and wellbeing. From the corporate client to individuals, Debbie motivates her audience to make lifestyle modifications to prevent and reverse chronic diseases.

​Debbie holds certifications in Lifestyle Medicine and Health Coaching, Plant-Based Nutrition, Group Fitness and Personal Training. She is a licensed and certified Food for Life Instructor through the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. She has a Bachelor of Science, Health Care Administration and Master of Business Administration from St. Leo University. Debbie co-founded Polk Wellness Professionals in 2011.

Want more from Debbie? Visit her at PhytoFit to learn more and attend her upcoming events!

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