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'Foods can definitely play a role' in reducing stress, says dietitian: Here are 3 to try, and 2 to avoid

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Key Points
  • More than two thirds, 67%, of adults say their stress levels rose during the pandemic.
  • A variety of activities can have an effect on your stress levels, including the foods you eat and beverages you drink.
  • To lower stress, try drinking green tea, for example, say experts.

The last couple of years have taken a toll on Americans. About two thirds, 67%, of adults say their stress levels have risen over the course of the pandemic, according to the American Psychological Association.

Anxiety is your body's reaction to stress, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Physical symptoms can include headaches, pain in the body, and loss of sleep, and can make daily activities like work difficult to get through.  

There's no single solution to eliminating stress and anxiety. But various activities can help. Marisa Moore, a culinary and integrative dietitian, recommends exercise and trying to get enough sleep. Plus, she says, "foods can definitely play a role."

Here are three foods that could help lower stress and anxiety, as well as a couple of foods to avoid.

Fish

Moore recommends eating foods with higher levels of tryptophan, which the National Library of Medicine notes is an amino acid the body uses to make serotonin. The chemical serotonin is "one of those natural mood stabilizers, one of those feel-good hormones," says Moore.

Foods that have tryptophan include turkey, chicken, eggs, cheese, tofu, and fish, says Moore.

"There was one very small study that showed that men who ate salmon three times per week reported lower levels of anxiety compared to those who ate other types of animal protein," she says.

Bananas

Carbohydrates provide the body with glucose, which gets converted into energy. Healthy carbs include whole grains like brown rice or quinoa, as well as fruits and vegetables.

One carbohydrate that can help lower stress levels: bananas. "They are a big source of B vitamins," says Moore, "which are also an important part of serotonin production in the body."

Moore recommends combining a food like fish with vegetables. "Sometimes that combination of a tryptophan-rich food with carbohydrate can help to boost" serotonin levels, she says.  

Green tea

"Green tea is high in an amino acid called theanine," says Max Lugavere, health and science journalist and bestselling author whose latest cookbook, "Genius Kitchen," is out this March. Theanine "promotes a sense of non-sedated relaxation" and is "found, I think, exclusively in green tea," he says.

Various types of green tea, including sencha and matcha, have theanine.

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What to consider eliminating from your diet

Shifting your diet to focus on lowering stress isn't just about adding key foods and beverages into your diet. "For me, it tends to be more of a process of elimination," says Lugavere.

"I would look to stay away from foods that are very high on the glycemic index," he says. The glycemic index is a ranking of foods based on how much they raise blood sugar. High blood sugar is associated with stress, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Foods that are composed of refined grains" spike blood sugar, Lugavere says. Those include white rice, white bread, and many pastries.

"Sugar sweetened beverages" like various sodas, sweet coffee drinks like Frappuccinos, or sports beverages like Gatorade are also a culprit, he says.

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