By nutritionist Jenna Hope

There’s a clear relationship between mental wellbeing and dietary intake – in particular, stress and anxiety can lead you to make less-than-optimal dietary decisions.

Stress is something that many of us experience on an all-too-regular basis. Acute and chronic stress increases the hormone cortisol. For some people, high levels of cortisol can stimulate the desire for high sugar and high fat foods. 

It’s understandable to opt for convenience foods such as chocolate or biscuits when we’re strapped for time, stressed or snowed under with work. However, there are healthier options that are likely to leave you feeling calmer and fuller for longer.

Here are some easy tweaks you can make to your diet that can help support you in both your physical and your mental health.

Remember that while diet is important, if changing what you eat causes additional stress, try to remove the pressure by focusing on just one of these ideas, e.g. increasing fibre, reducing coffee or switching out high sugar snacks.

1. Reduce high-sugar foods

The consumption of high sugar foods can cause an increase in blood sugar, insulin and cortisol levels which, in turn, leads to feelings of stress and anxiety (in those susceptible).  High sugar foods can stimulate the blood sugar rollercoaster – the spikes and crashes in blood sugar can contribute to increased cravings for high sugar foods. As blood sugar levels fall, so do energy levels and therefore the body stimulates sugar cravings to provide fast releasing energy. Opting for whole fruits can be a great way to provide you with a source of sugar without causing a blood sugar spike and crash. Fruits in their natural form contain fibre which helps to slow down the release of sugar into the blood stream.

2. Increase magnesium intake

This nutrient is often not given enough coverage yet it is required in over 600 processes in the body. Levels can quickly become depleted when the body is under stress, which can impact energy levels, sleep quality, and the ability to actually manage stress.

Ensure you’re consuming magnesium rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, dark chocolate, and beans and pulses to name a few. Try adding a handful of spinach into your smoothie, adding 80g of broccoli to your dinners or even roasting asparagus to snack on with hummus! Additionally, adding a can of beans to bolognaise sauces, curries and soups is another great way to increase your magnesium intake.

3. Keep alcohol to a minimum

For those who are susceptible to stress and anxiety, a high alcohol consumption can impair GABA secretion and reduce the production of the happy hormone serotonin, which in turn may cause a surge in stress, anxiety and low mood. Alcohol-free spirits, wines and beers are fantastic alternatives for those individuals who find alcohol contributes to impaired mental wellbeing.

4. Snack more – but snack right

Going for long periods of time without eating can cause your blood sugar levels to fall. When they do, you’re more likely to feel hungry, experience cravings for high sugar foods and overeat. Additionally, low blood sugar can contribute to anxiety with feelings such as dizziness and fatigue. Where possible, opt for a protein-rich snack – protein helps to balance blood sugar levels and will keep you fuller for longer. Nuts, boiled eggs, roasted beans and chickpeas or peanut butter sachets are all great on-the-go, protein-rich snacks

5. Switch out coffee for a herbal alternative

If you are prone to stress and anxiety, you may find that coffee and other sources of caffeine can contribute to symptoms. Where possible, opt for a herbal tea instead as this can help to keep your symptoms at bay. That’s not to say you have to give up coffee altogether – start small and switch out one or two coffees from your routine.

6. Pack in the greens

Greens are rich in magnesium which is important for supporting energy and the production of the stress hormones. Incorporate a side of greens such as spinach, broccoli or sautéed kale to any meal or try adding rocket or spinach to your sandwiches.

7. Consume more fibre

The gut and the brain are connected – high levels of bad bacteria in the gut can be associated with poor mental wellbeing. Fibre plays an important role in feeding the good bacteria within the gut. It’s recommended to consume 30g of fibre per day. Snacking on fruit and vegetables and switching your white grains for wholegrains can be a simple way to increase your total fibre intake. To give you some idea, an apple provides 4g of fibre, a portion of almonds contains around 3g, a serving of chickpeas contains around 7g, and 2 slices of wholegrain bread provides 3g. If you’re buying your sandwiches on the way to work opt for wholegrain bread or try out a bean or lentil based salad instead.

You can also use your diet to support your workouts – discover the easy but effective ways to fuel exercise.