The links between stress and diet

by Penny Tyndale-Hardy | 10 Apr 2024
The links between stress and Food & Drink

When we feel stress, it is nature’s messaging system telling us that our needs are not being met in balance. A common way to manage this feeling in the short term is to turn to Food & Drink. Here, Senior Trainer at The Mental Health Toolkit Penny Tyndale-Hardy explores the links between stress and Food & Drink and how we can meet our needs in a healthy way.

When we feel emotional we often crave certain foods and that’s because what we eat and drink can be a way of managing our mood… but only for a short while. We even reflect this effect in the name we give to the particular mix of fats and sugars that we might indulge in when feeling stressed – we call it “comfort food”.

Foods like this are rare in nature. Before industrialisation, we would work hard to get foods that were so rich in fats and sugars – whether through hunting, farming or preparing. So, when we did, they would often also meet emotional needs such as Security, Emotional Connection, or maybe Achievement.

These days, it is easy to get hold of such foods and yet we still gain some of the emotional hit that comes with them.

What’s wrong with using Food & Drink to feed other needs?

The problem is that food in itself doesn’t actually address the unmet needs that the stress is telling us about.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a range of foods – including occasional treats. The problem comes if we use these foods instead of trying to meet those emotional needs in healthy ways.

So when you crave ‘comfort’ food, it’s worth asking yourself – what need is it feeding?

If it’s Community, would it be more helpful to arrange to meet some friends and eat together? If it’s Achievement, would it be better to create a meal or try out a new recipe? Or if you’re craving food because you’re bored, maybe you could go for a walk or catch up with friends.

When our bodies feel well our minds often do too, so following a balanced diet (with occasional treats) can help keep our blood sugars balanced.

This prevents the spikes and dips in energy that can make us feel sluggish. We also sleep better when we eat and move well. And sleep is an incredibly important way to protect and care for our mental health.

Meeting your need for Food & Drink in a healthy way

We can allow ourselves to have healthy enjoyment in our food – it is, after all, one of the great pleasures in life! And this will be enhanced if most of what we eat and drink is good for our body too.

By eating a good range of complex carbs, protein, good fats, lots of fibre and plant-based foods we will maintain a good level of blood sugars to maintain energy throughout the day.

Our gut biome will also benefit and we know there is a link with gut health, inflammation and mental health.

And if the occasional treat really is occasional, it is even more enjoyable than if we have it all the time!

by Penny Tyndale-Hardy

Penny is a Senior Trainer at The Mental Health Toolkit.

The Mental Health Toolkit is a really intuitive way of looking at mental health. I love delivering this training as it helps us talk about mental health and wellbeing in a really useful and accessible way. It’s great to see attendees having those lightbulb moments during training and seeing how they can use our approach to help others and themselves.”

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