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Stress and Diet

As the saying goes, "You are what you eat" - but why, when, where and how you eat also has a direct impact upon your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health and well-being, and of course, many people overeat when they are under stress. Yet we all know that it isn't carrot and celery sticks that most people turn to as a coping mechanism!


While the image on the below left is humorous, it's also based in reality. When we're stressed, a reactive cycle of behavior begins, and as our body becomes instantly flooded with stress hormones, negative "mind-trap" thoughts, and challenging emotions, and left unchecked will prompt us to push aside making healthy food choices in the moment. We crave high-calorie, high sugar, and high-fat "comfort foods" that provide quick, cheap fuel and a burst of energy when we are in fight or flight mode, as well as the "feel-good" hormone dopamine which has been clinically demonstrated to be addictive.

That dessert may provide some temporary relief; that is, until we suffer the effects that eating an entire cake or container of ice cream cause, which creates another stressful event (both the physical health consequences and beating ourselves up for over-indulging) and the cycle perpetuates. If your stress levels are off the chart, you may find yourself living on caffeine, sugary and junk foods, and the adverse health impacts are compounded.


Guided Practice:

Mindful Eating


"The relationship we have with food is a reflection of the relationship we have with ourselves. Take a moment and think about this statement, as I know it's pretty bold. Let’s look at some of the reasons why this is. If you eat when distracted, under stress and without total presence, you are not fully honoring your body, mind and emotional well-being – and it can actually be unsafe to yourself and others.  

"If you find yourself eating for comfort when you are stressed, and then beat yourself up afterward, all this negative self talk is committing violence against yourself - a constant internal battle which creates more stress.  Mindfulness empowers us to become more self-aware and thereby make wiser, more informed choices – and be able to regain a sense of self-control and balance. We must first acknowledge our habits, accept we are human, and can grow and improve without trying to be 'perfect' as that is a toxic, impossible quest. We can see our old habits within the light of new, mindful alternatives, and know that anything of lasting value is worthy of being earned by a commitment to honor ourselves on a day-to-day basis. 

"This exercise is an opportunity to bring your full attention to an everyday activity in a new way; breaking out of your automatic habits around the experience of eating - and you may learn a lot in the process as to how much of the time many people tend to eat mind-less-ly."

Featured Resource:

Learn how sugar and caffeine affect your health

Image courtesy of University of California Televison

"Sugar: The Bitter Truth"


Robert H. Lustig, MD, and University of California, San Francisco Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology explores the damage caused by sugary foods. He describes in this video the "bitter truth" about sugar - and why it is the last thing we want to reach out for when we are feeling under pressure.


Sugar – friend or foe?

How often do you reach for sugar when stressed out? For most of us, it is more often than we’d care to admit. Yet sugar, whilst giving us an initial rush of energy, quickly takes our blood sugar levels in the opposite direction. Like caffeine it is addictive and science has shown us that it is more addictive than cocaine.


Image courtesy of Weight


"How sugar affects the brain"

"When you eat something loaded with sugar, your taste buds, your gut and your brain all take notice. This activation of your reward system is not unlike how bodies process addictive substances such as alcohol or nicotine -- an overload of sugar spikes dopamine levels and leaves you craving more. Educator Nicole Avena explains why sweets and treats should be enjoyed in moderation."


Image courtesy of


Image courtesy of


Sugar: Hiding in plain sight

"While sugar is easy to spot in candy, soft drinks and ice cream, it also hides out in foods you might not expect -- including peanut butter, pasta sauce and even bologna! Dr. Robert Lustig [who spoke about the "bitter truth" about sugar in the first video above] decodes confusing labels and sugar's many aliases to help determine just how much of that sweet carbohydrate makes its way into our diets." Narrated by Michelle Snow.

Caffeine-fueled or caffeine-free?

Can you start your day without your daily caffeine fix? At what point do you think your adrenal glands will finally feel the fatigue of yet more caffeine to get you going? Caffeine causes them to work overtime to pump out yet more cortisol which is actually the last hormone you want in your body when you have an important deadline to meet, another urgent email to respond to, another call to the compliance hotline which may warrant serious consequences if found to be true.

Nowadays, there are many caffeine free alternatives available that it is no longer an excuse to say there is nothing that gives you the same ‘get up and go’ feeling that your morning latte gives you.

Matcha is an excellent form of green tea which, whilst not caffeine free, releases caffeine slowly within the blood stream over several hours after ingestion and does not cause a crash a few hours later.

There are many types of tea which can have a positive effect on other aspects of your health e.g. peppermint tea has been shown to increase alertness without caffeine, lemon and ginger tea has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic practice for helping digestion, one of the first things that is affected when we are stressed and making poor food choices. You can read more here as a starting point.


Image courtesy of


How caffeine and alcohol affect your sleep 


"Caffeine wakes you up, and alcohol makes you nod off, right? It's not that simple. Sleep scientist Matt Walker takes us into the eye-opening ways that these drinks affect the quantity and quality of our sleep."

Dr. Matt Walker is a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science.


Image courtesy of

NY TIMES: Too Much Caffeine May Stress the Heart

In moderate doses caffeine has mainly positive effects for most people. But it increases production of cortisol, which can lead to health problems including anxiety, weight gain and heart disease.

"Caffeine is by far America’s leading nonprescription drug, regularly consumed by some 90 million adults each day in coffee, tea, soft and energy drinks and some prescription and over-the-counter medications.

"Caffeine increases secretion of the body’s main stress hormone, cortisol, best known for fueling a fight-or-flight response to a perceived threat or crisis. Produced by the adrenal glands when stimulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, cortisol diverts other bodily functions to permit a quick, effective response to stress or danger.

"A sudden jolt from cortisol prompts your blood pressure to rise, heart to beat faster and energy level to soar, which no doubt enabled some early humans to escape a hungry lion in pursuit. Few of us today have to worry about becoming prey to a wild beast. Still, many live in a near-constant state of biochemical stress with the body’s alarm system turned on high all day long.

"A constant outpouring of too much cortisol can result in a number of health problems, including anxiety, depression, problems with memory and concentration, trouble sleeping, weight gain and - yes, dear brother - heart disease."

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