FORTUNE – You may already know that stress eating—mindlessly downing unhealthy snacks when you’re feeling overwhelmed and emotionally spent—isn’t great for long-term health. Often these feel-good foods make us anything but: Science shows that fried, fatty, sugary foods increase inflammation in the body.
Inflammation is our immune system’s response to stimulus, such as an injury or infection. In small doses, it’s actually good for you—it increases blood flow and sends the right immune system cells to the affected area, kicking your body’s defenses into action.
But low-grade inflammation that continues over time—like the kind caused by constant stress—not only raises your risk for chronic disease, it also creates more psychological distress, essentially worsening the feelings that make us stress eat in the first place.
While many of the processed, sugar-heavy foods Americans tend to turn to for comfort fall firmly into the pro-inflammatory camp, there are other foods that can actually dial inflammation down in the body.
Anti-inflammatory foods are those that are rich in plant compounds such as polyphenols as well as natural antioxidants, which help reduce oxidative damage to your tissues. Some of the foods that make the cut include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, and olive oil.
This raises the question: If you’re living with constant stress, could you turn to anti-inflammatory foods for relief? Dr. Uma Naidoo, a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist and author of This Is Your Brain on Food, says the answer is yes—with a few caveats.
“In life, in medicine, in health, it’s never just one thing,” she says. “A holistic approach to stress involves a little bit of mindfulness and exercise, as well as better eating. But if you’re only able to choose one thing to focus on, pick diet, absolutely. Food can make a difference” … read more.