Can a balanced diet help manage stress at work?

Emily Stuart, Dietitian for leading meals provider, apetito, looks at how a balanced diet can potentially help in managing stress at work…

“In the words of Heroux – “there is no trouble so great that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea”! 

And whilst that may not entirely be the case for workers in busy care homes, who over the past year have experienced considerably higher stress levels under COVID-19 conditions – it is true to say that stress has many factors that link to diet in one way or another.  When we are less stressed, we tend to eat a more nutritious diet, and conversely when we are stressed out – our diet is more likely to lack essential nutrients and be made up of convenience food. 

It is possible to make some small changes to lifestyle and diet, which can make a positive difference.

Interestingly, scientists tell us that experiencing some short-lived, not chronic episodes of stress can prime us to perform at our best and improve mental – or physical – performance.  However, it is when stress becomes chronic, or episodes of feeling stressed become frequent that we start to see negative effects on our mental and physical wellbeing.

Stress often evolves from being placed in a situation where we feel under intense mental or emotional strain or tension, often under demanding circumstances, such as those seen in abundance across care homes and healthcare trusts, with workers helping residents and patients to keep them safe under the pandemic.

Diet can help…

Below are a few tips to help you cope with feeling stressed.  A balanced diet can also make a difference to overall well-being:

  • Back to that cup of tea!  Consider reducing your caffeine intake.  Drinking highly caffeinated drinks like strong coffee, tea, and fizzy drinks can increase secretion of cortisol (the stress hormone), both when at rest and during a stressful event.  And consumed over longer-periods this can have lasting effects on health. If you currently have several cups of coffee per day, try and cut back to no more than 2-3 per day.  For those with trouble sleeping – avoid caffeine after around 2pm.
  • Increase your physical activity as this will enhance positive emotions, and help you deal with negative ones.  Studies have found that physical activity is mood-enhancing and that people who do regular exercise experience less frequent stressful episodes.  No need to take up running marathons – why not consider walking or cycling to work or just walking up and down stairs instead of taking the lift?  Small things can make a big difference here.
  • Nutritional content is very important within your diet as poor nutrition impacts your energy levels, mood, and even brain function.
  • If your diet is lacking in iron, you’re likely to feel very tired as low levels are linked to a risk of anaemia.  Rich sources of iron include red meat, poultry and fish, beans and pulses, and fortified cereals.  You may not know that drinking tea with meals may interfere with the absorption of iron from vegetarian sources.
  • Vitamin B is important for energy regulation, and a deficiency can lead to tiredness and fatigue.    Fortified foods including wholegrain cereals, and foods such as meat/fish, eggs and dairy contain valuable B vitamins. 
  • There are also nutrients that are linked to higher incidences of depression – selenium and folate. A lack of these nutrients may increase depressive feelings.   Selenium is found in brazil nuts, meat, fish, seeds, and wholemeal bread.  Folate is found in liver, green vegetables, oranges and other citrus fruits, beans, and fortified foods such as yeast extract (marmite) and fortified breakfast cereals. Thankfully, for most people, they can get these nutrients from a healthy balanced diet.
  • Ensuring your meals contain some carbohydrate means you will have enough glucose in your blood.  Not having enough glucose in the blood (hypoglycaemia) can lead to weakness and tiredness. Glucose is a vital fuel for our body, and is our brains preferred energy source. It also helps us to regulate our body temperature and fuel our muscles. Carbs are very important to our energy levels including bread, rice, or pasta (ideally wholegrain), as well as potatoes, milk and dairy foods and fruit and vegetables.

An overall balanced diet is important for general wellbeing, which when optimised, can help to make you feel generally healthier and more relaxed.

It’s important not to become too preoccupied with your diet, but ensuring an overall well-balanced diet containing proteins, fibre-rich fruit and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, dairy foods and some healthy fats can be achieved with a little attention.

The Government’s Eatwell Guide shows how much of what we eat should ideally come from which food groups. Aim to incorporate this balance into your diet and it may well lead to you feeling more energised and better sleep – both of which are linked to chronic stress when not managed properly.


Posted on

9 April 2021