Online Health Chat with Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD

March 20, 2013


Feeling stressed? You are not alone. We all seem to have more to do these days. Research has shown that too much stress has a significant impact on our health and wellness. According to the American Heart Association, high or chronic stress can cause damage to artery walls, weaken your immune system, cause physical symptoms (including headache and nausea) and may lead to coronary artery disease. The American Psychological Association also notes that stress impairs the brain's ability to block certain toxins and other large, potentially harmful molecules.

The good news is that we can manage stress, and even find ways to feel good all day long. There are many strategies to manage stress in our lives, such as exercise, meditation and breathing techniques, which have been proven to lower stress levels. Another method to manage stress is through the foods you eat.

Stress affects the body, cut certain foods combat stress. Find out which foods tend to initiate the stress response, and which ones reduce it.

About the Speaker

As a licensed and registered dietitian for more than 15 years, and the director of wellness coaching at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD knows how important it is to teach her clients how to eat right—without asking them to deprive themselves. She believes in “real nutrition for real people,” and is passionate about getting people excited to eat healthy, get healthy, and stay healthy.

Jamieson-Petonic is also a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Some of her former clients include the Cleveland Browns, Cleveland Cavaliers and the San Jose Ballet. She was also a consultant to the U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Teams.

Let’s Chat About Stress Busting Foods

Moderator: Welcome to our Online Health Chat with Cleveland Clinic expert Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD. We are thrilled to have her here today for this chat. Let’s begin with some of your questions.

Tuts: Since stress levels are higher at work, I was looking for lunch ideas to help aide in stress reduction.

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: Try to stick with 100 percent whole grains, for example a sandwich with whole grain bread. All carbohydrates raise serotonin (a ‘feel good’ hormone) levels, but whole grains digest slower and cause a steadier release of this hormone. In addition, whole grains stabilize blood sugars, preventing spikes and drops, which could negatively affect your mood. You can also add a few slices of avocado to your sandwich. Avocados are high in unsaturated fats and contain an ample amount of potassium. This potassium helps to control high blood pressure, and the healthy fats have an anti-inflammatory effect to bolster cardiovascular health. Another good option would be almonds. Almonds are full of different nutrients which aid our bodies in a time of stress. These include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E to improve immunity, B vitamins which are involved in energy metabolism, and magnesium which keeps cortisol (a stress hormone) levels low. Low magnesium levels can also cause headaches and fatigue, so maintaining a healthy level can prevent these common stress symptoms.

ChaCha: Are these foods better at reducing stress once you are already experiencing it or in preventing it?

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: It is always better to be on the prevention side than the treatment side, right? In a perfect world, I would suggest that you consume these foods to prevent stress, but I realize that this is not always possible. These foods will be most beneficial prior to being stressed, but will also benefit you when stress levels rise. These foods will increase serotonin levels, which will improve mood and decrease stress.

AGS4: If you already eat a healthy diet, do you need to change your diet to incorporate suggested foods or do you only add them in times of stress?

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: Congratulations for eating a healthy diet! You are already ahead of the game! Most of my clients are still working on the healthy diet part. Take a look at the list of foods and see if there is anything that you have not incorporated into your diet. If you are already eating those foods, try some different ones such as quinoa, chia seeds or walnuts. These all have stress-relieving properties.

Myron1: What foods make your skin healthy?

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: Foods with a high amount of omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, tuna and chia seeds are good for the skin because they reduce the amount of inflammation and dryness. Omega-3 fatty acids also have a positive impact on the cardiovascular system and keep blood vessels clear, improving circulation and blood flow to the skin. In addition, vitamin C is important for maintaining healthy skin. Vitamin C is important in the production of collagen—a protein found in skin which provides its structure. Vitamin C can be found in foods, such as oranges, grapefruits, bell peppers and cherries. If you want to ensure the health of your skin, it is also beneficial to consume foods with antioxidants, such as in fruits or nuts. These compounds protect the body from ‘free radicals’, which damage the cells of the skin.

Gota: When I am stressed, my muscles get really tense. Can foods help my muscles to relax?

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: That depends—are you eating or drinking beverages that are increasing your heart rate or blood pressure? These may be increasing blood flow to your muscles and increasing the tightness in them. I would suggest limiting caffeine (like coffee, tea and chocolate) as well as spicy foods that may increase metabolism and increase your heart rate.

DreamOn: Are there good foods to eat in the morning to help your mood at the beginning of the day, and help keep you from getting stressed?

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: A good bet for your morning would be a meal that includes 100 percent whole grains. All carbohydrates raise serotonin (a ‘feel good’ hormone) levels, but whole grains digest slower and cause a steadier release of this hormone. In addition, whole grains stabilize blood sugars, preventing spikes and drops which could negatively affect your mood. A good source of 100 percent whole grains would be oatmeal. You can even dress it up with fresh berries which are rich in antioxidants and vitamin C to further combat your stress. As a bonus, make the oatmeal with low-fat milk because milk contains tryptophan, which is converted to serotonin in the body. The calcium, magnesium and potassium in milk play a role in blood pressure control. Research also suggests that calcium has an anxiety-calming effect and can prevent mood swings.

Anne Marie: Our son is experiencing panic attacks and stress from high school. What are some foods we can have him eat in the morning to help lower his stress before going to school?

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: I am so sorry to hear this. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. For breakfast, provide him 100 percent whole grain cereal or ‘old-fashioned’ oatmeal with low-fat milk. The cereal, which should be low in sugar—with no more than four grams of added sugar per serving, will provide complex carbohydrates and help the brain produce serotonin—the ‘feel good’ hormone. Serotonin also creates a soothing feeling to overcome stress.
  2. He can also eat blueberries, which are high in antioxidants and help reduce cortisol levels (a hormone associated with stress).
  3. Another good choice is to include walnuts, which are high in omega 3 fatty acids—a good heart healthy fat that improves brain power and reduces inflammation and stress.

Anne Marie: We try to eat healthy and make sure we are getting our fruits and vegetables each day, but when we are stressed we tend to eat junk food. Do you have any recommendation on how to handle this, and some foods that can help to lower the stress?

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: Yes, I would suggest that you and your family set yourself up for success by stocking the house with lots of ‘stress-busting’ foods and try to reduce your purchases of ‘stress-causing’ foods. Here are a few items to always have in the house to help reduce stress:

  1. Low-fat milk—Is high in Vitamins B2 and B12 as well as protein and calcium. It is great to have this with 100 percent whole grain cereal and fresh fruit.
  2. Nuts—Walnuts, almonds and cashews are high in good heart healthy fats.
  3. Red peppers with hummus—Red peppers are high in vitamin C, and they promote healing and relieving stress.
  4. Carrots—Is high in vitamin A, and helps make white blood cells to fight infections and promote optimal health.
  5. Dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cocoa or higher) —one to two ounces per day can significantly improve mood and mood chemicals.

Gunther: Are there certain foods to avoid that can increase a ‘stressed-out’ feeling?

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: Here is a partial list of foods to avoid that increase stress: spicy foods, energy drinks, foods high in added sugars (including cookies, cakes, pies, candies and sugary beverages), foods high in trans fats and saturated fats (including cheeseburgers, French fries and deep-fried ‘anything’), and processed foods and foods high in sodium and additives (which increase cortisol levels and increase stress).

Carrie: I heard belly fat can be caused by stress. Can you recommend some exercises besides the typical crunches and sit ups to get rid of it? Also, are there any foods that can help with this?

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: Yes, there is a link to this, but you can definitely make changes as well. I would suggest meeting with a fitness specialist and ask for instructions on how to do activities that improve your core muscles, such as yoga, sit-ups (the proper form) and other exercises that strengthen the front of your body as well as your back.

There are a lot foods that help reduce inflammation and belly fat as well. I would suggest 100 percent whole grains (cereals, whole grain breads, brown rice, whole grain pasta and legumes), extra virgin olive oil, a small handful of walnuts, wild salmon, fresh fruits and vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. Good luck!

Carrie: I heard that stress can attribute to not getting pregnant. I have been trying to get pregnant for the past six months and to no avail. This would be my second pregnancy, my first happened very quickly! Can you recommend what to do if I am feeling stressed during this time? Especially when I am at work.

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: I would suggest trying a few stress management techniques first. Deep breathing, relaxation exercises and some physical activity to boost your endorphins (‘feel good’ chemicals). From the food perspective, try fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, a small handful of nuts and lean protein sources (like salmon).

Sand: If you don't get enough sleep, are there any foods that you would recommend to help make up for it or alleviate fatigue to the greatest degree possible? Do you recommend against eating certain foods that would make it even worse?

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: You probably want to increase your serotonin levels, and the best way to do that would be to consume 100 percent whole grains and protein. Some examples include 100 percent whole grain oatmeal with low-fat milk, a handful of toasted walnuts and blueberries, or a tuna sandwich on 100 percent whole grain bread with a piece of fruit. Try to consume carbohydrates (grains) along with protein together to improve serotonin levels.

Daisy: What foods help reduce stress?


  1. Asparagus
  2. Low-fat milk
  3. Cottage cheese and fruit
  4. Almonds and walnuts
  5. Tuna
  6. Blueberries
  7. Green tea
  8. Whole grains
  9. Salmon
  10. At least 70 percent dark chocolate

MGmg: My physician suggested a nutritional hierarchy which emphasized longevity in general. What are your thoughts?


  1. High priority should be:
    • Your plate should be roughly 50 percent vegetables and fruits, 25 percent complex high-quality carbohydrates and 25 percent lean protein.
    • Protein should be primarily from non-animal sources (e.g. beans, soy and peas).
    • You should eat until you are 80 percent full.
  2. Medium priority should be:
    • Eliminate as many processed foods as possible after implementing the high priority items
  3. Lower priority should be:
    • Eat organic foods with the priority as follows: fruits and vegetables, dairy and meats.

Dottie: My question was regarding the common occurrence of the stressful eating of salty foods, like chips. Is there an explainable cause of this and an adequate healthier substitution that will qualm the overwhelming craving during this state of mind.

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: Yes, high sodium and processed foods tend to increase cortisol levels and increase stress. Try unsalted nuts for a crunch, or fresh vegetables, like peppers, carrots, or cucumbers to increase ‘feel good’ chemicals.

Hyde: During the day I often feel bloated—whether I eat or not. This feeling gets worse when I do eat anything even if it is yogurt or soup. Could my diet be the issue, or is this feeling stress related? I am not sure how to prevent it. Would probiotics be a help in this situation?

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: Diet may be a possible culprit, but I would suggest going to see your doctor for more information. Probiotics may help—check with your doctor first. If you choose to use a probiotic supplement, you want at least three to five billion healthy bacteria in the supplement to provide a therapeutic effect.

rlf: When stressed out, my worst time is late afternoon or early evening. Specifically, I binge on baked goods (cookies, crackers, cereal, etc.). Although I enjoy healthy fruits and vegetables at other times, it seems I crave only this class of snacks and at this time. I would appreciate any suggestions you may offer.

Amy_Jamieson-Petonic,_MEd,_RD,_CSSD,_LD: It makes perfect sense to me why you would crave junk foods in the afternoon. This is probably due to your galanin levels. Galanin is a hormone that tends to rise in the afternoon, and causes us to crave high-fat, high-calorie foods. What is the solution, you ask? I would suggest trying to get some physical activity (even a short walk) in the afternoon before this time. Activity will help reduce galanin levels, and increase endorphins (the ‘feel good’ chemicals) that will help you choose more nutritious snacks.

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Reviewed: 05/13