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Foods to Manage Stress

icons of bread, leafy greens, fish and cup of tea to accompany bulleted text

Can you believe that we’re into week 7 of physical distancing and the COVID quarantine? If you’re feeling stressed, you’re not alone.

In fact, a recent poll by Angus Reid found that 50% of Canadians say their mental health has worsened, feeling worried and anxious.

First of all, please know that there are many support resources available online to help you manage stress and anxiety during these tough times. Regular exercise, meditation and other healthy stress busting behaviours can help. Talk to a health care professional if you need some support.

As a dietitian, here are 5 key nutrients and foods to add to your plate which can help you manage stress.

Watch my TV interview here!

TV host Lindsey Deluce speaking to Dietitian Sue Mah, shown on a split sceren








OR watch my 1-minute video clip below.



Carbs, especially whole grain carbs

Carbs help trigger the production of serotonin. This is the feel good chemical in the brain (a neurotransmitter). Serotonin is made in brain from the amino acid tryptophan. This is a small amino acid and has a tough time getting into the brain.

When you eat a meal that’s mostly carbs, it triggers the insulin to clear the bigger amino acids from your bloodstream, allowing tryptophan to get into the brain and make serotonin. Overall, serotonin helps you to feel calm.

Some good whole grain carb choices are:

  • brown rice
  • whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta
  • quinoa

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 also helps our body make serotonin. This vitamin is found in a wide range of foods, so it’s important to eat a variety of foods. Some of the best foods for vitamin B6 are:

  • chicken, turkey, meat, fish like salmon
  • chickpeas, pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds
  • potatoes, bananas, avocados


When we are stressed, our body (adrenal glands) releases cortisol which is a stress hormone. Cortisol actually depletes the body of magnesium. So we need to make sure we’re getting enough magnesium when you’re feeling stressed.

Some of the best foods for magnesium are:

  • leafy greens like spinach, kale and Swiss chard
  • nuts and seeds like almonds, pine nuts and sunflower seeds
  • whole grains like whole wheat bread (Fun fact: whole wheat bread contains 4x more Mg than white bread)
  • dark chocolate (a 30 g serving offers 15-20% of your daily requirements for magnesium!)

Omega-3 fats

You may already know that omega-3 fats are good for our heart health. But did you know that the animal sources of omega-3 fats also help to boost our mood!

Some of the best sources of omega-3 fats are:

  • fatty fish like salmon, trout, arctic char, sardines. Try to eat fatty fish at least twice a week.
  • omega-3 enriched eggs


Tea contains a special amino acid called L– theanine. This actually triggers the release of another neurotransmitter in the brain (called GABA or gamma-amino-butyric-acid) which gives you a relaxed feeling. Black tea, green tea, white tea and oolong tea all contain this special amino acid.

Stay well and stay safe. We are all in this together to get through the COVID-19 crisis.



What’s the best type of chocolate to give on Valentine’s Day?

In short, the answer is: Whatever type of chocolate he/she enjoys! After all, Valentine’s Day comes but once a year!

But if your decision is at all swayed by health, then take a look at the options below.

Cocoa nibs: These are cocoa beans that have been roasted and then broken into small pieces. Cocoa naturally contains a special type of antioxidant that appears to be heart healthy because it lowers blood pressure and keeps our blood vessels healthy. Expect a crunchy, chocolately flavour that’s slightly bitter. Think chocolate without any added sugar. Add them to salads, yogurt, trail mix or baked recipes.

Dark chocolate: After cocoa nibs, dark chocolate has the next highest flavonoid content. Research shows that 50 to 100 grams of dark chocolate may have heart health benefits. Look for dark chocolate with at least 60% cocoa solids – the higher the percentage, the higher the antioxidant content.

Milk chocolate: Milk chocolate contains added milk and sugar. There’s still about 25% cocoa solids but it pales in comparison to dark chocolate. In fact, dark chocolate contains 7 times more antioxidants than milk chocolate.

White chocolate: Sorry, but white chocolate isn’t made from cocoa beans at all. Rather, it’s simply cocoa butter so there’s no flavonoids.

Whichever chocolate you prefer, keep in mind that the calories and fat do add up quickly. Even 50 grams of dark chocolate can ring in almost 300 calories and 20-30 grams of fat, so enjoy it in moderation!

Watch my chocolate interview with Steven and Chris.

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