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6 Unhealthy Foods You Crave When You're Stressed, and What to Eat Instead

Feeling stressed? Make these smart food swaps, and you'll chill out faster.

As the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the country, it's not just causing Americans to stockpile hand sanitizer and toilet paper, it's also making us stressed out. Luckily, there's a simple way to combat stress, and you can do it from the comfort of your own home. And, no, we're not talking about drawing yourself a bath or laying on the couch to watch TV.

Experts have found that adding healthy, stress-busting foods to your diet can significantly impact your mood. At the same time, there are certain picks that can also make your anxiety even worse than it is already.

So, let's do a little Eat This, Not That! for stress. Here are the foods that you may typically reach for when you're stressed out—which will only further aggravate anxiety—and the healthy replacements that will chill you out.

When you want milk chocolate…

milk chocolate

Replace it with dark chocolate

When you're stressed, you probably want to just relax on the couch and indulge in some comfort foods. Totally reasonable. The problem? Sweets like milk chocolate are full of sugar, which will only drag you down. Swapping milk chocolate with dark chocolate may actually allow your stress levels to subside. Compared to milk chocolate, dark chocolate has almost double the amount of cocoa—the ingredient that contains stress-banishing antioxidants.

The only way to reap the benefits? Make sure to grab a dark chocolate bar that has less than 10 grams of sugar per serving and more than 70 percent cacao (the primary health-boosting ingredient in chocolate). Endangered Species chocolate, for instance, contains 72 percent cocoa solids (while milk chocolate tends to hover around half of that—38 percent) and only 8 grams of sugar compared to milk chocolate's 15 grams.

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When you want pasta…

plate penne pasta tomato sauce

Replace it with complex carbs like spaghetti squash

It's not just you. Your stress-induced carb craving is completely natural. Carbs play a role in helping your brain release the feel-good hormone serotonin. But refined carbs like pasta, crackers, and cookies cause spikes and dips in blood sugar, which can leave you feeling anxious, irritable, and drained—all moods you definitely don't want when you're already stressed out.

The key to satisfying your craving is to reach for slow-digesting, complex carbs like spaghetti squash to promote stable blood sugar levels. Switching to spaghetti squash, like Green Giant Veggie Spirals Spaghetti Squash, can also slash your calories and carb intake by over half.

When you want ice cream…

vanilla bean ice cream in white dish with spoon

Replace it with chocolate-dipped strawberries

Neither Ben nor Jerry will be of much help when you're feeling stressed. And while ice cream might cool off your mouth, eating a pint of it won't cool off your mind, that's for sure.

Foods that are high in refined sugar—like the 33 grams in a pint of Ben & Jerry's—only increase levels of stress hormones like cortisol. When your body can't use up all of that refined sugar, your blood glucose levels plummet rapidly. The low blood-glucose levels trigger your brain to secrete more cortisol, which in turn, causes you to continue to feel stressed.

If you want to treat yourself, satisfy your sweet tooth with chocolate-covered strawberries instead. Strawberries are packed with vitamin C (just one cup will satisfy your daily needs), an antioxidant that has been proven to help people cope with stressful situations and treat anxiety. Plus, dipping the berries in a little dark chocolate will double down on this sweet's stress-busting benefits.

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When you want red meat…

dry ages barbecue porterhouse steak on cutting block

Replace it with fish like salmon

Swim away from stress by swapping out your ground beef taco salad with a serving of seafood. Now, we're not saying you need to cut meat from your diet entirely to destress, it's just that it'll be beneficial to rotate more healthy fish into your diet.

Regularly consuming fatty fish like salmon can help you boost your mood. Salmon is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which help your body produce and transport mood-boosting serotonin. An added benefit? This fatty acid can also help decrease inflammation and lower anxiety.

When you want soda…

soda in glasses

Replace it with sparkling water

Sorry, but soda is a no-no when you're pulling out your hair. Sodas—even those that use real fruit juice—are loaded with both glucose and fructose sugars. You know the drill. Drink a can of that, and those 35 grams of sugar will spike your blood sugar. The glucose triggers a rush of stress hormones, and the fructose can alter how the brain responds to stress on a genetic level.

Instead, opt for sparkling water like Waterloo Sparkling Water, which has no sugar or calories. You can get your fizzy fix, without the sugary, stressful hangover.

When you want potato chips…

Ridge potato chips in bag

Replace them with pumpkin seeds or dry roasted nuts

Eating too many high-sodium foods is a one-two punch to your mental and physical health—and not in a good way. Let's start with stress.

When your body switches to stress mode, one of the body's natural responses is to elevate blood pressure. Eating high-sodium foods that cause your body to hold onto extra water, thus raising your blood pressure even more, and you'll feel even more high-strung.

The second part of this one-two punch is immunity. When you're sick, your body naturally becomes dehydrated. Eat too much sodium, which causes fluids to be pulled from your cells into your bloodstream, and you'll exacerbate the natural dehydration symptoms even more.

Instead of salty potato chips, reach for unsalted snacks like almonds or pumpkin seeds. Both are an excellent source of magnesium, with unsalted pumpkin seeds containing 37% DV magnesium per ounce and unsalted almonds 19% DV per ounce. Magnesium is a vital nutrient for our body's natural stress-coping mechanism. If you aren't getting enough magnesium, you're more prone to stress and anxiety. Plus, nuts are rich in fiber, fat, and protein, all of which will fill you up so you're not reaching for sugary or salty snacks an hour later.

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Olivia Tarantino
Olivia Tarantino is the Managing Editor of Eat This, Not That!, specializing in nutrition, health, and food product coverage. Read more about Olivia
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