top of page

The Anti-Anxiety Diet: The 3 Simple Rules for Eating to Ease Anxiety

We all know how important it is to eat well for our physical health, but what we eat also plays an important role both in our emotional health and in our anxiety. Research now shows the role eating a healthy diet can play an important role in easing our anxiety. According to 2021 study in the journal Nutrients, there’s “an association between healthy eating patterns and reduced anxiety symptoms.” 


While the idea of making some changes to your diet can seem overwhelming, the truth is, eating to ease anxiety is just a matter of following 3 simple rules.


1. Eat real food.

The first and best way to eat to reduce anxiety is to eat real food. And by real food I mean food that hasn’t been manufactured or processed and is still as close to natural as possible. A wonderful rule of thumb for what I’m talking about comes from best-selling author, Michael Pollan in his book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, “If it’s a plant, eat it. If it’s made in a plant, don’t.” Exactly.

 

So, how do we know which foods are the best for us? Simple.

 

Shop the Outside

If you’re serious about including real foods in your diet, the best place to start is in the outside aisles of your grocery store. If yours is like most grocery stores, you’ll find most of the foods you need for good health are found in those outer aisles (bakery excluded). So, when you do your shopping, shop those outside aisles first. Fill your cart with veggies, fruits, dairy, and lean protein. Then go back up and down the aisles and add whole grains, nuts, and spices to round things out. 

 

D.I.Y. Cooking

Having plenty of whole foods in the house can go a long way to insuring you’re eating well. But there’s another step you can take to be sure you’re both eating great food and eating to ease anxiety. Start cooking.

 

I know we’re all busy and finding some time to spend in the kitchen can be tough. But when you make time to cook your own food, you’re taking care of yourself in two powerful ways. First of all, cooking it yourself puts you in charge of your food choices. When you make it yourself you know exactly what you’re putting in your body. There’s no question how much salt, sugar, or unhealthy fat you’re consuming. You know what you’re eating.  

 

And even more importantly, the research shows that doing your own cooking can help calm your anxiety. A study of 657 healthy Australian adults found that those people who cooked for themselves after 7 weeks felt more confident, were more satisfied with their food, and reported improvement in both physical and mental health.

 

Finally, cooking with other people offers the added benefit of social connection and can add some fun to the process.

 

But eating to ease anxiety isn’t just about choosing and cooking the best quality food possible, it’s also about including variety in your diet.

 

2. Eat a balanced diet. 

Eating a balanced diet is a great way to ensure you’re giving your body and your mind all the nutrients they need to be at their best. And to eat a balanced diet all you have to do is include something from all the food groups at each meal – including carbohydrates. 

 

Carbohydrates

I know there’s been a lot of talk lately about limiting carbs or eliminating them entirely from our diet. But not all carbs are bad. There are two kinds of carbs, and they have very different effects on our bodies.

 

Complex or “Good” Carbs

Complex carbs are unprocessed and include things like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. They’re not only an important source of energy for our bodies, research now proves that eating these good carbs can play an important role in eating to ease our anxiety. 

 

A 2020 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research found that people who eat diets that include complex carbohydrates like fruits and vegetable plus beans and nuts had reduced odds of experiencing anxiety disorders and a reduction in the symptoms of anxiety.

 

Simple (“Bad”) Carbs

On the other hand, eating simple carbs can actually make our anxiety worse. These simple carbs are all about sugar. And, I’m not just talking about the sugar we put in our coffee. I’m talking about all the different kinds of sugar that show up in so many of products that we eat every day, often under some assumed names. To find that hidden sugar, look for words like syrup, sweetener, or any ingredient ending in “ose.” (Glucose, fructose, dextrose, etc).


Not only are these simple carbs refined and offer little nutritional value, they can also cause a sugar spike that can really play havoc with our anxiety.


The Anxiety Roller Coaster

Maybe you’ve experienced that rush of energy that comes from eating something sugary. Well, that rush is caused by the spike in our blood sugar that happens as our body burns through those simple carbohydrates the same way fire burns through kindling. And, if you’ve experienced that rush, I bet you’ve experienced the crash that follows as your blood sugar levels plummets. 

 

That crash is often accompanied by the same kind of physical symptoms we get when we’re anxious. We shake, our hands sweat. We have trouble breathing, and our heart feels like it’s going to pound out of our chest. It can feel like we’re anxious and all we want to do is feel better – so, guess what we do! 

 

We eat more sugary foods, in order to get another sugar high. And so we go up and down. And that roller coaster ride can make us really anxious, both physically and emotionally.

 

So, if you’re looking to ease your anxiety, consider eating less sugar. Notice, I’m not saying, “no sugar.” I’m suggesting that you think of sugar as a special treat, not for every day. Again, this is all about balance.

 

Dairy

Dairy products aren’t for everyone. Some of us are lactose intolerant or have dairy allergies.  But for the rest of us, getting some dairy in our diet every day is important for keeping our bones healthy, preventing osteoporosis, and providing us with a list of important nutrients (including Calcium and Vitamin D). But that’s not all. A recent study found that including some dairy in our diet can help us feel less stressed and calmer.

 

According to a 2022 study in Nutrients, students from three large U.S. universities who included more dairy and calcium in their diets felt less stressed. And increased calcium intake was linked to feeling less anxious and more resilient.  


So, getting some milk, yogurt, or cheese in your diet can be an important part of your anxiety-busting food plan. 

 

Protein 

If you’re really serious about eating to ease your anxiety, you’re going to want to include some lean protein with every meal. 

 

Now, there are lots of great sources of protein to choose from: Eggs, fish, nuts, beans, lentils, cheese, tofu, etc. But this may surprise you (I know it surprised me): If you want to ease your anxiety, you may want to consider eating some meat. That’s right, I said meat. 

 

I know, lots of people have lots of different reasons for not eating meat. And, of course, I urge you to make the decision that’s right for you – I understand that this may not be right option for you. But, let’s look at this solely through the “anxiety lens” for a moment.

 

Recent research indicates that including some meat in your diet may actually help ease your anxiety. A 2021 mega-analysis of the effect meat consumption has on depression and anxiety found that. “there is clear evidence that meat-abstention is associated with higher rates or risk of depression, anxiety, and self-harm.”

 

In other words, including some meat in your diet may help ease your anxiety.  But, again, the decision whether or not to eat meat is a personal one, and not one to be made lightly. And this brings us to the last thing to consider when thinking about balancing your food choices, and that’s to include some fat in your diet.

 

Fat

For years I thought that fat of any kind was to be avoided at all costs.  But in her book The Anatomy of Anxiety, psychiatrist Ellen Vora, MD writes, “I do NOT recommend that anyone struggling with anxiety eat a low-fat diet. In fact, one of the fastest ways to improve anxiety is to INCREASE the healthy fat in your diet.” But, it’s important to note she’s not talking about just any fat. 

 

She’s talking about the healthy fats like olive oil, avocado oil, and things like nuts, avocados, and coconuts. Those healthy fats make foods more delicious as far as I’m concerned, so this is good news. And as Dr. Vora writes, “Eating a reasonable amount of fat with every meal helps to stabilize blood sugar and prevents your body from experiencing the shakiness and irritability of false anxiety.  

 

Go Easy on the Caffeine

For some people, having an extra cup of coffee in the morning is no big deal. But for lots of us, caffeine can play a big role in making us nervous. I don’t know about you but drinking that third cup of tea in the afternoon makes me jittery and anxious for hours. And the research confirms that I’m not alone. 

 

A study in a 2022 edition of the Journal of General Hospital Psychiatry found that a dose of caffeine roughly equivalent to 5 cups of coffee, not only caused panic attacks in a large proportion of people with panic disorder, it also increased anxiety in both in patients with panic disorder as well as healthy adults.

 

So, how much caffeine is too much? That depends on you, and how your body reacts to caffeine.

 

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Up to 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine a day appears to be safe for most healthy adults. That's roughly the amount of caffeine in four cups of brewed coffee,” And that may work for you. But maybe, like me, you’ll find that two cups a day is your limit.

 

You may find that a single serving of caffeine is too much, or maybe you can enjoy all four of those cups of coffee with no ill effects. 

 

Either way, it’s important to consider your caffeine consumption when you’re looking at creating a healthy eating/living plan for yourself.


But it’s not just what we eat. How we eat can play big role in how we feel.

 

3. Eat in moderation.

Eating in moderation simply means eating a reasonable amount of food –  just enough to meet your body’s needs and you feel satisfied – no less and no more. 

 

And when we eat too much, or we don’t eat enough that can play a big role in our anxiety.

Both over-eating and under-eating can be caused by our anxiety, and in turn they can both make us anxious.

 

Over-eating

Some of us over-eat to as a way to ease our anxiety. When we feel stressed, we turn to comfort food and eat way beyond our comfort zone. So our anxiety can be the cause of over-eating. On the other hand, eating past the feeling of fullness can actually make us anxious.

 

Physically, it can cause symptoms like chest pains, heart palpitations, lightheadedness and, of course, indigestion. 

 

Emotionally, over-eating can cause feelings of regret, shame and failure.

 

Under-eating

Just the way some of us over eat when we’re anxious, anxiety can make us so stressed that we’re not able to eat enough to sustain us. So, anxiety can be the cause of under-eating.

And like overeating, under-eating can lead to distress both physically and emotionally. 

 

Physically. under-eating can leave you feeling tired or cold all the time. It can lead to skin problems, hair loss, and make you more prone to getting sick.

 

Emotionally under-eating can make you cranky and irritable. And more importantly, research shows that not getting some essential nutrients can play a real role in our anxiety. Our bodies need key nutrients like the B Vitamins, Vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc to regulate our stress responses.  And under-eating can mean we’re not getting all of that nutrition necessary to help us deal with the symptoms of anxiety.

 

How Do We Know When to Stop?

How do we know what moderation looks and feels like? Our bodies tell us, with a sigh, or a sense of fullness. The trick is to listen to the signals are body is sending. 


Here’s how to listen: 

  1. First of all, think of food as fuel for your body, because that’s what it is. 

  2. When you’re hungry, make sure you eat. When your body asks for energy, it’s important to fuel up.

  3. Eat more slowly. It takes time for the body to let the brain know you’re had enough, and when you eat slowly, they have time to communicate.

  4. Chew your food. Enjoy what you’re eating.

  5. Finally, when you sigh or feel your body relax with satisfaction, stop eating. 

            

There you have it, your mantra to eating to ease anxiety: Real food, all food groups, in moderation. Just three simple rules to making some healthy changes to your eating.

But simple doesn’t mean change is going to be easy. Let’s take a moment to recognize that making any change to our “normal” routine is challenging. But like changing any habit, the best thing is to start small. Could you cut down a little on sugar? Maybe grab a handful of almonds for an afternoon snack instead of a candy bar? May cut out that second cup of coffee one day this week? Then two days next week?

 

You get the idea. Make changes one tiny step at a time. And go easy on yourself. Maybe the New Year is a great excuse to make a change, but we all know how hard it can be to keep our New Year’s resolutions. So, start small, small resolutions small steps. Celebrate every small successful step you take, as you work toward building the calm, joyful life of your dreams.


More Anxiety Resources

Calm & Sense: A Woman's Guide to Living Anxiety-Free  by Wendy Leeds

Creating new habits is a big part of my book, Calm & Sense: A Woman's Guide to Living Anxiety-Free. Chapters 44-46 are devoted to strategies around what we eat and drink. 

 

I also host a monthly podcast, Anxiety Connection. I’m currently running a mini-series called Why You're Anxious & What to Do About It, which was based on a mini-course of the same name. You can find them all on YouTube here: https://wendyleeds.com/mini-course.

 

Stay in touch – we have a great community of women who are managing our anxiety: 

  1. My email newsletter, where I notify you of new blog posts like this one and new episodes of the podcast: https://wendyleeds.com/subscribe

  2. And my Facebook page, where we come together to chat about all things anxiety: https://facebook.com/wendyleedskeepingcalm

 

I understand the challenges of anxiety first-hand. So please reach out any time. And I sincerely hope that even one of these resources turns out to be helpful to you.


 

References

 

  1. Aucoin Monique, et Al. (December 2021). Diet and Anxiety: A Scoping Review. Nutrients Journal. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8706568/

  2. Pollan, Michael. 2009. Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. Penguin Books. New York, New York.

  3. Rees, Joanna, et al. (March 2022) How a 7-Week Food Literacy Cooking Program Affects Cooking Confidence and Mental Health: Findings of a Quasi-Experimental Controlled Intervention Trial.  Nutritional Methodology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2022.802940/fu

  4. Davison, Karen, M. et Al. (February 2020) Nutritional Factors, Physical Health and Immigrant Status Are Associated with Anxiety Disorders among Middle-Aged and Older Adults: Findings from Baseline Data of The Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA) International Journal of Environmental Research https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/5/1493

  5. Firth, Joseph, et Al. (November 2020). Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental well-being. The BMJ. (British Medical Journal). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7322666/

  6. USDA MyPlate. U.S. Department of Agriculture https://www.myplate.gov/eat-healthy/dairy

  7. Du Chen, et Al. (February 2022) Relationships between Dairy and Calcium Intake and Mental Health Measures of Higher Education Students in the United States: Outcomes from Moderation Analyses. Nutrients Journal. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8877188/ 

  8. Dobersek, Urska, et Al. (October 2021). Meat and mental health: A meta-analysis of meat consumption, depression, and anxiety. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10408398.2021.1974336

  9. Vora, Ellen, MD. (2022) The Anatomy of Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming the Body’s Fear Response Harper Collins, New York. Page 101. https://www.amazon.com/Anatomy-Anxiety-Understanding-Overcoming-Response-ebook/dp/B09793HLB6

  10. Kievebrant, Lisa. Frick, Andreas. (February 2022). Effects of caffeine on anxiety and panic attacks in patients with panic disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. General Hospital Psychiatry. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0163834321001614?via%3Dihu

  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

  12. Hussenoede, Felix,. (July 2021) Analyzing the link between anxiety and eating behavior as a potential pathway to eating-related health outcomes. Scientific Reports. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-94279

  13. Kris-Etherton, Penny, M. (May 2021) Nutrition and behavioral health disorders: depression and anxiety. Nutrition Reviews. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8453603/


0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page