Stress is a normal response to a trigger (think: an argument with a friend or an after-hours text from your boss) — and anxiety is evidence of your body's reaction to stress. While anxiety can last long enough to affect how you experience life, tweaking your lifestyle may help make it more manageable.
What you eat matters for your mental health, which is why nutrition psychiatry is an evolving area of research. There's a connection between the food you eat and your mood, and research suggests that diet quality might affect common mental disorders including anxiety, according to a March 2017 review in EBioMedicine.
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Read on to learn how diet plays a role in your mood and how to eat to better manage stress and anxiety.
How Food Affects Your Mood
The first-line approach to caring for your mental health is talking to your doctor about behavioral health services. Chances are, a professional may recommend adjusting your lifestyle, including how you eat.
While a single food probably won't send you to your breaking point, your typical eating pattern can influence your mood and might worsen stress and anxiety.
Today's standard American diet is laden with saturated fats, trans fats and added sugars. Swapping low-nutrient foods (like those high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates, such as processed foods) for more fruits, vegetables, beans and lean protein is linked to lower symptoms of common mental disorders like depression, according to a January 2017 trial in BMC Medicine. Plus, many nutrients like B vitamins, choline, magnesium, zinc, and folate play prominent roles in our brains, cells and nerves, per a September 2020 review in Nutrition Reviews.
Essential nutrients such as vitamins A, C and E act as antioxidants, which help combat oxidative stress, a condition that happens when there's an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants. Oxidative stress can trigger inflammation and is linked to a higher risk of chronic diseases, according to a January 2018 study in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.
Knowing which foods to avoid with anxiety can help you improve your eating habits — and maybe even your mood.
8 Foods to Limit When You Have Anxiety
1. Coffee and Tea
In a bustling world, caffeinated beverages can feel like a means of survival.
With many relying on that morning pick-me-up, coffee and tea can affect the brain. "Caffeine is a known stimulant to help individuals stay active and alert. However, it could also contribute to stress and anxiety by elevating certain hormones like cortisol, dopamine, adrenaline [as well as] adenosine," says dietitian Catherine Gervacio, RD.
According to an April 2021 Cureus study of 114 college students who regularly drank coffee, anxiety and depressive symptoms were linked to increased caffeine intake. So maybe consider sizing down on your brew or caffeinated beverage.
Fizzy soda drinks may be a go-to thirst quencher for some, but they may put a damper on healthy brain function. It's no surprise regular soda contains a lot of sugar, about 9 teaspoons' worth in a 12-ounce can, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs).
Taking in too much sugar is tied to altered brain function and contributes to anxiety and depression symptoms, according to an August 2019 review in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.
To help lower anxiety levels, make some diet tweaks to help you find calm, such as upping your water intake.
3. Energy Drinks
Energy drinks usually serve up a mix of caffeine, sugar (and/or sugar alternatives), vitamins and amino acids. While they're often viewed as a solution when you're lacking focus, energy drinks may disturb your mood.
Drinking energy drinks is associated with insomnia, jitteriness and stomach upset, according to an extensive May 2021 review in Sports Health. Prioritizing 7 to 9 hours of sleep may help you lower your intake of energy drinks and prevent stress.
It's not uncommon for people to go for a glass of wine to unwind from a stressful day or grab drinks in a social setting. But for some folks, social situations can increase anxiety and therefore up their reliance on that liquid courage, according to a January 2021 review in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
"Alcohol may help you feel relaxed at first, but can lead to increased anxiety later on when it wears off— and it's even worse if you're taking medications like benzodiazepines (like Xanax), which alcohol interacts with in a negative way," says dietitian Amber Dixon, RD and CEO at Elderly Assist Inc.
Alcohol increases bacteria in the intestines, and an overgrowth in gut bacteria can trigger inflammation, according to a 2017 review in Alcohol Research. It's well-established that there's a link between the gut and the brain (known as the gut-brain axis) — and these gut changes are associated with disruptions in brain function and anxiety symptoms.
"[Alcohol drinking] also interferes with the absorption of nutrients and can disrupt a healthy sleep pattern, " says Gervacio. And get this: Lack of important nutrients and sleep may further perpetuate stress and anxiety.
The bottom line: Be mindful of your alcohol intake, drink moderately or get help to avoid it altogether.
5. Certain Processed, Packaged Snacks
It's true: People who are stressed often eat more fast food and less produce, per a January 2019 study in the European Journal of Nutrition.
Popping open a bag of chips or unwrapping a chocolate bar can be a quick relief you're feeling under pressure. But eating a lot of ultra-processed food is associated with higher stress levels, per an April 2021 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Ultra-processed foods have many ingredients, including fats, added sugars, food additives and sodium, which Gervacio says can lead to physiological stress.
"Overconsumption of [high-sodium foods] can elevate blood pressure, causing the release of adrenaline," says Gervacio. Adrenaline is a stress hormone associated with the fight-or-flight response.
You may fare better limiting packaged snacks by choosing nutrient-dense foods like baby carrots with hummus, clementines or sliced almonds with dark chocolate for a quick nosh.
6. Fried Foods
Sure, convenience drives our food choices. While fast food may be OK once in a while, you'll still want to limit how often you visit the drive-thru.
"Trans fats are found in many .... fried foods like French fries or chicken wings. They've been linked to an increased risk of depression, as well as an imbalance in brain chemicals that can cause mood changes like nervousness or irritability," says Dixon.
In fact, people with depressive symptoms were found to have more trans fats in their bodies than people without symptoms, according to an April 2019 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
If you're ordering out, try to pick foods that are steamed, grilled or sauteed instead of fried, battered and breaded.
7. Processed Meats
Eating red meat and processed meat (think: bacon, sausage and salami) is strongly linked to depression risk in a September 2020 review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Even so, the evidence on the association between red meat and processed meat intake on mental health is mixed.
People who didn't eat meat were observed to have higher risks of depression, anxiety and self-harm, according to an April 2020 review in Critical Reviews of Food Science and Nutrition. In contrast, a higher intake of these meats was associated with lower depression and anxiety in an April 2019 study in the European Journal of Nutrition. This study suggests that a diet high in sugar and saturated fat might be the culprit driving depressive symptoms.
It's important to remember that many processed meats are also high in saturated fat, a nutrient you're better off eating in limited amounts, according to the DGAs. The DGAs encourage swapping processed meats for seafood, beans and lentils to cut down on saturated fat
8. Diet Products With Aspartame
Artificial sweeteners continue to be a weighty topic. A growing body of evidence suggests a connection between a type of artificial sweetener called aspartame and brain and behavioral health, according to an October 2018 review in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience.
Aspartame, often sold under the brand names Equal and Nutrasweet, is found in many foods and drinks like sugar-free gums and low-calorie juices. Here's the problem: "It's been found to increase cortisol levels in the blood and has been linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety disorders," Dixon says.
The increase in cortisol produces extra free radicals, which are tied to making the brain more prone to oxidative stress and poor functioning, according to a June 2018 review in Nutritional Neuroscience.
What's more, aspartame can alter our gut bacteria, per an October 2018 review in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience. And changes in the gut can alter the composition of crucial brain chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, which might contribute to mood changes, but more research is needed to confirm these findings.
What to Eat When You Have Anxiety
- Fruits and vegetables: Filling up on fruits and vegetables provides antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins and minerals to help thwart inflammation and help you stay more even-keeled.
- Whole grains: Whole grains (like kamut, oats and popcorn) are excellent sources of dietary fiber, which is linked to fighting stress by lowering inflammation in the body and brain, according to a January 2021 review in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
- Omega-3s: Heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats such as omega-3 fats are found in sardines, salmon, walnuts and extra-virgin olive oil. Omega-3 fats are inflammation-fighting nutrients that are associated with reduced anxiety symptoms, according to an August 2015 review in Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience.
- Fermented foods: Kefir, apple cider vinegar and yogurt are examples of fermented and cultured foods that contain live bacteria, called probiotics, for good gut health. Probiotics may have small but helpful effects on anxiety symptoms, according to a July 2019 review in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. But more research is needed to establish this link.
- Turmeric: Spices like turmeric have been heavily studied for their bioactive components. Supplementing with turmeric (or curcumin) for eight weeks was observed to lower anxiety symptoms in a small April 2020 study in Phytotherapy Research.
The Bottom Line
No matter the cause or frequency of your stress and anxiety, finding ways to manage are some of the most vital tools you can have to protect your mental and physical wellbeing.
Monitoring your mood doesn't mean you have to swear off every food stated above, but it does help to eat them less often. Routinely choosing nutrients that are linked to improved anxiety and stress symptoms gives you the best chance to cope well.
If stress or anxiety is interfering with your life, it may be time to talk with your doctor or mental health professional as soon as possible.
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