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Ohio State University Extension


Eating Healthy During Stressful Times

Family and Consumer Sciences
Patricia Brinkman, Extension Educator, Ohio State University Extension

Feeling stressed? What are you eating? Most of us reach for comfort foods when we are stressed, such as cookies, cake, candy and other high sugar, low fiber foods. These foods can increase the development of chronic inflammation developing and affecting our body. High levels of chronic inflammation are believed to cause rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, asthma, reduced kidney function and inflammatory bowel disease.  Prolonged chronic inflammation increases our risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other diseases.  Even low amounts of inflammation can increase your risk of obesity, depression and the effects of aging.  By eating a healthier diet we may reduce our risk of chronic inflammation and diseases.  One study on postmenopausal women found that those eating a healthier diet reduced their risk of death from any cause by 60 percent and had an 88 percent reduced risk of death from breast cancer.

What should we eat to avoid chronic inflammation from building up in our body? Three eating plans provide reliable assistance along with allowing individual choices of food. Those plans are: Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern, based on guidance found in the 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines; Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern; and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet. Each of these has some differences but all three emphasize certain patterns.  

All three plans encourage us to eat:

  • Plenty of vegetables and fruit 
  • Whole grains
  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy
  • Seafood and plant proteins

These plans limit or encourage people to avoid consumption of:

  • Empty calories including foods with added sugar, or drinking excess alcohol
  • Refined grains
  • Saturated fat foods
  • High sodium foods

What would a daily eating plan include?

  • Vegetables – 2 to 4 cups
  • Fruits – at least 2 cups a day 
  • Whole grains – 3 to 4 ounces a day
  • Fish/Seafood – 8 to 16 ounces a week for Omega-3
  • Nuts and soy – 4 to 6 ounces a week
  • Olive oil – 1 to 2 Tablespoons a day.
  • Dairy (1% or skim) – 1 to 3 cups a day
  • Alcohol – 0 to 1 drink a day

The overall eating pattern is more important than any one certain food or foods. However, certain foods have been found to have more antioxidants which may be beneficial under stress. Be sure to consume vitamin C foods such as oranges, strawberries, tomatoes and other citrus fruits. Cherries and blueberries are other good fruits to include in your eating plan. Eat fruit for dessert instead of other sweet foods. Eat some leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collards and chard along with broccoli. Nuts especially almonds, walnuts and pistachios along with avocados should be eaten in moderation. When choosing seafood select salmon, sardine, anchovies and other fatty fish. Use olive, flaxseed or canola oil instead of margarine, butter or shortening. Include some low-fat or fat-free yogurt and milk for dairy products in your eating plan.  

Limit the amount of red and processed meats you eat to less than 12 ounces a week, also limit saturated fats (solid fats) and avoid foods containing trans-fats. Keep added sugars to less than 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men a day. (This is also the recommendation of the American Heart Association). Replace sweetened beverages with water, unsweetened (green or black) tea, coffee and/or 1% or fat-free milk.  

Make it a goal to eat lots of fiber by eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains and nuts. Fiber increases the anti-inflammatory properties from these foods. Add some garlic, onion, pepper, ginger, turmeric, oregano, thyme and rosemary for additional anti-inflammatory properties.

Following one of the above eating plans will reduce your risk of chronic disease, the effects of aging and depression. When you are in a very stressful time choose to eat vegetables, fruit, whole grains, 1% or fat-free dairy, seafood and plant proteins, rather than comfort foods or junk foods.

An example of a day’s meal plan would be:

Breakfast: Oatmeal with cinnamon with 1% or fat-free milk; additional toppings can include walnuts, dried or fresh fruit; cup of tea or coffee
Snacks for the day: Fruit, nuts, water, tea
Lunch: Bean soup with 100 percent whole grain crackers, baby carrots, fresh pear and glass of 1% or fat-free milk
Dinner: Fish, baked sweet potato, spinach salad with olive oil dressing, berries with yogurt topping for dessert


  • American Heart Association. (2011).  “High sugar consumption may increase risk factors for heart disease in American teenagers.” Available online at
  • Galland, L. (2010). Diet and inflammation. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 25(6). 634-640
  • Julia, C., Meunier, N., Touvier, M., Ahluwalia, N., Sapin, V., Paper, I., Cano, N., Hercberg, S., Galan, P., & Kesse-Guyot, E. (2013). Dietary patterns and risk of elevated C-reactive protein concentrations 12 years later. British Journal of Nutrition, 110, 747-754. 
  • Lucas, M., Chocano-Bedova, P., Shulze, M., Mirzaei, F., O’Reilly, E., Okereke, O., Hu, F., Willett, W., & Ascherio, A. (2014). Inflammatory dietary pattern and risk of depression among women. Brain, Behavior and Immunity, 36, 46-53. Available online at
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.  (2015). “Description of the DASH Eating Plan.” Available at
  • Orchard, T. [2015]. Eating healthy under stress: improving diet quality to lower chronic inflammation. Webinar for Your Plan for Health, Ohio State University.
  • Shivappa, N., Stack, S., Hurley, T., Ma, Y., Ockene, I., Tabung, F., & Hebert, J. (2014). A population-based dietary inflammatory index predicts levels of C-reactive protein in the seasonal variation of blood cholesterol study. Public Health Nutrition, 17(8), 1825-1833
  • USDA. (2016). “2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” Available at
  • Zu, H., Sjogren, P., Arnlov, J., Banerjee, T., Cederholm, T., Riserus, U., Bengt, L., Lind, L., and Carrero, J.J. (2015). A proinflammatory diet is associated with systemic inflammation and reduced kidney function in elderly adults. Journal of Nutrition, 145(4), 729-735.
Originally posted May 10, 2016.