Skip to Content

Why Staying Paleo Can Help Beat Holiday Stress

The holidays: a time of joy, nostalgia, and celebration.

There’s a lot of pressure to make the holiday season feel merry and bright. But the truth is that this time of year can bring about a lot of stress. Between fighting crowds at the mall, sending a stack of holiday cards, sticking to a budget, and spreading yourself thin between family, work, and extra social obligations, it’s no wonder so many of us feel overwhelmed when the calendars hit December.

It might seem as though you’ve “earned” a few sugary cookies to use as fuel to get you through those harder days, but the truth is that letting your diet slip right now can make things even worse. Here’s why sticking to The Paleo Diet® can help keep you afloat when you feel like you’re drowning in stress.

What Stress Does to the Body

First, it helps to understand why stress is so bad for us in the first place. When we start to get stressed out, our adrenal glands release cortisol. In small amounts, this is a good thing. Cortisol helps our bodies reduce inflammation, regulate sleep, and control blood pressure. But as our stress levels increase, cortisol levels reach an unhealthy level, causing a rise in blood pressure and increased inflammation. [1]

This stress response affects every system of your body. [3] You might notice immediate symptoms of stress overload like headaches, muscle tension, chest pain, fatigue, change in sex drive, and digestive issues. [3, 5] Chronic stress, or experiencing this level of stress for a prolonged period of time, can lead to more significant health problems such as weight gain, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular problems, insomnia, depression, and even infertility. [2, 3]

How Your Diet Plays a Role

This time of year is notorious for its abundance of sugary, fatty, and highly processed foods. Indulge in too many of these treats, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

Why is that? Foods high in sugar, flour, grains, and dairy contribute to a leaky gut, which can cause headaches, gastrointestinal issues, joint inflammation, fatigue, brain fog, and weight gain. [3-4] If you’re already battling these side effects from stress, the effects of a poor diet will work double-time at making you feel awful.

So, what should you focus on instead? A diet rich in omega-3 fats, found in foods like salmon, avocado, and nuts, can regulate cortisol levels, which is why eating a Paleo Diet can really be helpful in times of stress. [2] Healthy fruits and vegetables can also work to normalize your cortisol.

How to Enjoy the Holidays While Staying Paleo

Of course, we don’t want you to feel deprived this holiday season. As usual, we advocate for the 85/15 rule, which allows the flexibility of up to 15 percent of your diet to be whatever you want.

We know that it’s not always easy to stick to this rule, especially when you feel surrounded by temptation. To help keep your diet in balance, try these tips.

Eat Before You Leave the House

Heading to a holiday party? Before you duck out the door, eat a Paleo snack—or a full dinner if you can. You’ll feel full and satisfied, which will make it easier to decline the plate of crackers or cookies.

You can also pack a snack to stow in your purse or jacket pocket. A small bag of jerky or nuts are a great thing to always keep on hand, anyway!

If you’re at the party and feeling hungry, stick to the raw veggie platter and nut mixes. It’s important to stay hydrated, too. Opt for water with lemon, or seltzer to drink. Avoid cocktails, which are sugary and may negatively impact your mood.

Try Meal Planning

Time to hop on the meal planning train! It might seem like just another chore, but taking the time to plan out your meals for the week can really pay off. You’ll thank yourself for the slow cooker batch of taco soup waiting for you when you come home late after your child’s holiday concert at school.

Need some ideas? Pick from a year’s worth of meal plans in What to Eat This Week.

Grab an Accountability Buddy

Do you struggle with willpower? Find someone to go Paleo with you. If you spend a lot of time at the office, choose someone that you work with. You can take turns bringing Paleo-friendly snacks to share with your coworkers when there are too many sugary treats in the break room.

If you’d rather go it alone but still need some accountability, use an app to track your meals and fitness plan. You’ll be more likely to stick with it if you’re keeping a log of everything you eat.

Bring Paleo Dishes to Dinner Parties

If an invitation to a dinner party comes your way, offer to bring a salad or your favorite Paleo dish to share. That way, you can be sure that at least part of your meal is healthy and nutritious!

The Bottom Line

Stress can make it easier to overindulge in sugary food, creating an unhealthy cycle that can result in headaches, depression, and more. While it might seem difficult to stick with a diet right now, remember that a nutrient-rich diet can actually help balance out your cortisol levels during times of stress. With a bit of planning, you can still indulge in your favorite holiday treats while keeping the majority of your diet to a healthy variety of veggies, fruit, meat, nuts, and eggs.


  1. The Cleveland Clinic, Eat these foods to reduce stress and anxiety, 2021 https://health.clevelandclinic…;
  2. Soltani H, Keim NL, Laugero KD. Diet Quality for Sodium and Vegetables Mediate Effects of Whole Food Diets on 8-Week Changes in Stress Load. Nutrients. 2018 Nov;10(11):1606.
  3. American Psychological Association, Stress effects on the body, 2018
  4. Harvard Health Publishing Putting a stop to leaky gut. Diseases and conditions 2021Putting a stop to leaky gut – Harvard Health
  5. Mayo Clinic Stress Management, 2021
  6. Francis HM, Stevenson RJ, Chambers JR, Gupta D, Newey B, Lim CK. A brief diet intervention can reduce symptoms of depression in young adults – A randomized controlled trial. 2019

The Paleo Diet Team

The Paleo Diet® team consists of a group of scientists, journalists, experts, and recipe creators who stay at the forefront of nutrition science.

More About The Author
birdseye view of someone taking notes off a computer

Healthy While Traveling

back to top