Time to confess: In high-stress times, how does your diet change?

Before you start feeling defensive and insist that even in your worst week, it's all whole wheat and kale for you, be aware that if you fall off the nutritional bandwagon every once in a while, you're in good company. A new study from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health shows that fully a third of us change what we eat in response to stress.

So it's OK, all you stressed-out snackers; you can come out in the open. Taking an honest look at how your stress levels and diet interact is the first step to optimizing what you eat to boost your mood. And what you eat can have a pretty hefty effect on your stress levels, according to a fascinating recent write-up on NPR of this aspect of the research.

A Vicious Cycle of Snacking

"Many of us are quick to turn to either sugary foods or highly refined carbohydrates such as bagels or white pasta when the stress hits," writes Allison Aubrey, shocking pretty much no one. What are the effects of those Pringles binges (I confess!) or rushed spaghetti dinners? A vicious cycle of bad moods and bad eating, according to David Ludwig, a professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Harvard University.

"When we feel stressed, we seek foods that are going to comfort us immediately, but oftentimes those foods lead to surges and crashes in hormones and blood sugar that increase our susceptibility to new stresses," Ludwig told NPR. He pointed to another study that fed teenaged boys a variety of breakfasts, from healthy proteins to sugary instant oatmeal.

"After the highly refined instant oatmeal, blood sugar soared but then crashed a few hours later, and when that happened, the [stress] hormone adrenaline, or epinephrine, surged to very high levels," he explained. In other words, your comfort foods aren't actually comforting you--they're making you feel worse (and probably even more prone to reach for a cupcake, keeping the cycle going).

Getting Off the Roller Coaster

So how can you get off this blood sugar and hormone roller coaster and make sure your diet lessens rather than worsens your stress levels? First off, as tempting as it can be to go with simple carbohydrates and sugars when stressed, resist the siren song of these oh-so-delicious snacks and instead opt for choices that calm the body's physical response to stress rather than ramping it up.

The NPR article is chock-full of specific suggestions for what you should be filling your stomach with, including stress-busting desserts (your prayers are answered), foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and handy snacks that won't leave you feeling worse than when you started munching.

Are the snacks sitting on your desk contributing to your stressed-out mood?