Your day throws a lot at you: work stress, family stress, life stress—you get it: stress! And how well you respond to the adversity—both physically and mentally—depends a lot on what you’re eating.
“People understand the link between diet and physical health, but we don’t always make the connection that what you eat or don’t eat will affect your mood and, long-term, can have a profound affect on your risk of depression and anxiety,” says Shape advisory board member, Elizabeth Somer, R.D., author of Eat Your Way to Happiness.
And since we often restrict certain food groups or nutrients (sometimes unknowingly) in an attempt to lose weight, you risk adding to your already stressful life. “Specific nutrients have a major impact on your neurotransmitters, hormones, and blood sugar levels, all factors that control stress levels,” explains Kait Fortunato Greenberg, R.D., author of the blog The Rebel Dietitian.
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Low-Carb Can Drive You Crazy...
For example, carbohydrates provide glucose, a sugar that is your brain’s number-one fuel, Somer says. If you jump on the low-carb bandwagon, depending how low you go, you may force your brain to survive on compounds called ketones, the byproducts of your body breaking fat down into fuel. Since your body doesn’t run well on ketones, you may feel exhausted or have problems thinking and concentrating. [Tweet this fact!]
Add in the fact that carbs boost levels of feel-good serotonin in the brain—hence why you crave sugar when you’re stressed—and that restricting carbs could cause you to miss out on certain B vitamins that help regulate stress hormones, and your risk of becoming an anxious mess seems almost inevitable.
...And Low-Fat May Make You Frantic
Eliminating most of the fat from your diet could be just as tolling on your mental health and turn you into one very hangry lady. This phenomenon happens with your blood sugar takes a dive, causing you to want to bite someone’s head off over the tiniest things. If you’re being uber restrictive with your diet, limiting fat—which slows digestion to keep your blood sugar steady and your belly satisfied—or eating lots of low-fat foods—which are often high in sugar—can lead to a roller coaster of blood sugar and mood swings. In fact, a new Ohio State University study found that being hangry is a major factor that causes fights with your partner.
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Going low-fat may also mean you’re missing out on omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. Low levels of these essential fatty acids are associated with a greater risk of mood disorders. Somer says bumping up your intake of EPA (a type of omega 3 found in fish) may improve your body’s ability to handle stress and quell anxiety since omega 3s reduce inflammation and affect those neurotransmitters in your brain that play a starring role in attention and mood.
The No-Stress Eating Plan
The best diet to keep stress and your weight down is not dieting at all. “No one who loses weight is happy doing so and keeps it off following a fad diet,” Somer says.
Focus instead on filling your plate with whole foods of all kinds—you know, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, nuts, seeds, and the like. [Tweet this tip!] You can still enjoy the foods you love that may not be so “whole,” as long as you balance those choices with healthier ones, Greenberg says. That might be a veggie-packed dinner followed by a small scoop of real, full-fat ice cream or fries alongside a salad.
There’s no promise you’ll live stress-free—it would take a magic wand for that—but giving your body the nutrients it needs while still having fun with eating will better prepare you to handle anything thrown your way.