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the connection between anxiety and food

As the saying and the TV programme goes, ‘you are what you eat.’ And it happens to be true – our diet isn’t just capable of impacting our body, it can affect our mental health too. Nutritional therapist, Sarah Dodd, reveals all in this article.

You may not realise this, but not eating a healthy, balanced diet, can lead to you depriving yourself of some extremely valuable mental health tools. Here, nutritional therapist, Sarah Dodd, explains the relationship between anxiety and food. She also shares a shortlist of foods to eat to reduce anxiety and stress.

the link between anxiety and food

In order to function every day, we all need food to keep us going, whether that’s a banana, handful of nuts,   or something more substantial. 

But when we feel anxious, we’re more likely to reach out for ‘quick fix’ foods. And the more anxious we get, the more we consume food that tastes great, but doesn’t help reduce our anxiety levels because it’s lacking in nutrients.

Certain diets can result in us missing out on these valuable nutrients too. For instance, it’s not uncommon for people to skip protein, fat or fibre and eat a carb-heavy meal in their quest to lose some pounds. But what they may not realise, is that after the initial sugar rush, this type of diet may cause their blood sugar levels to drop, which can actually make them feel tired and anxious.

Eating a balanced combination of food means we’re less likely to reach out for sugary, convenience food that keeps us going round-and-round on the anxiety wheel. Meanwhile, research has found that missing meals may also stimulate our body’s stress response system, so steer clear of leaving long gaps between meals.

the best food for stress and anxiety

1. healthy fats, protein and fibre

Maintaining a consistent energy balance is the ideal. This can easily be achieved by making sure your meals and snacks contain healthy fats, plus protein and fibre, which will help you feel fuller for longer.

Per meal as a rough guide, adults should aim for:

• around one clenched fist or up to one third of a plate of carbohydrates
• a palm size of protein and vegetable or salad
• a thumb’s worth of healthy fats 

Healthy Omega 3 fats are strongly linked to our mental health, and may support mood health by reducing inflammation, which is thought to be a major underlying cause of depression and anxiety. If possible, try to eat two portions of Omega 3-rich oily fish a week.

Carbohydrate food sources include: beans, peas, lentils and wholegrains.

Protein food sources include: eggs, beef, chicken or turkey, seafood, cheese, tofu beans or lentils.

Healthy fats food sources include: salmon, mackerel, kippers, anchovies, sardines (Omega 3 fat sources), olive oil, olives, nuts, seeds and avocado.

If you do need a quick snack try instead to include fibre with your carbs, for example, have some pecans with your pear, or celery with your houmous, seeds with your yoghurt. Fibre smooths out the carbohydrate spike.

2. B vitamins

Protein-rich food, such as meat, fish, eggs, beans, tofu and lentils, are all   good sources of B vitamins.  Many of these  enable our bodies to produce energy, as well as mood-enhancing chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Cutting out meat and grains can potentially lead to people becoming deficient in Niacin (Vitamin B3), which is essential for making the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin.

Meanwhile, Vitamin B6 deficiency can lead to people feeling anxious and irritable. This is due to the fact B6 is involved in the production of several neurotransmitters, including serotonin, and Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) - which helps us control fear and calm anxiety and is created in the gut from B6 foods. 

B12 is another vital nutrient that’s found in meat, fish and milk. Not having enough B12 in our system can potentially lead to depression and panic attacks.

Vitamin B food sources include: chickpeas, beef liver, salmon, chicken breast, oats and nutritional yeast.

Vitamin B food sources for vegans include: sunflower seeds, unsalted nuts, mushrooms, fortified plant milk and cereals. You may also want to consider taking a B12 supplement.

3. magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral that’s crucial for regulating our stress response. But stress can actually reduce our magnesium levels.

Where possible, try to eat one to two handfuls of leafy green vegetables and salad leaves a day because they’re packed full of magnesium. Stir them into soups, stews and smoothies or just pile them on the side of your plate. (Note: Alcohol can reduce your magnesium levels).

Magnesium food sources include: spinach, kale, swiss chard, mustard greens, pumpkin and sesame seeds, brazil nuts, dark chocolate and mackerel.

4. fermented food 

Our gut is a complex ecosystem of bacteria that’s directly connected to our brain. Looking after our gut is crucial if we want to nurture our mental health.

Gut bacteria are responsible for producing some of the mood neurotransmitters that were mentioned earlier. However, they must also have plenty of fibre and vegetables to be able to thrive. 

The Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species of ‘good bacteria’ present in fermented food has specifically been linked to helping improve brain health. It increases antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity and produces Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Get into the habit of eating some form of fermented food every day or so. It will feed your good gut bacteria and enable them to multiply and grow stronger. (Note: it’s best to eat/drink fermented food cold. Heat can kill the delicate organisms).

Fermented food sources include: kefir (fermented milk with a yoghurt-like consistency), raw sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) and kimchi (fermented radish). 

5. vitamin D3

Vitamin D3 goes hand-in-hand with mood levels. Low Vitamin D is associated with increased symptoms of anxiety and low mood.

Vitamin D deficiencies are common in the UK. Our bodies struggle to make the Vitamin D we need because of the minimal sunlight hours we’re exposed to in the autumn and winter. At the same time, Vitamin D isn’t something that’s readily available in food either.

The NHS recommends taking 400iu or 10mcg of Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) daily, all-year-round. Midday summer sun exposure and eating frozen or fresh (wild) salmon is also believed to help boost Vitamin D levels

one last tip in relation to anxiety and food…

Now that you’ve reached the end of this article, we hope you’re feeling clearer on the connection between anxiety and food. The good news is that it’s relatively easy to boost our mood, simply by rethinking our food choices. Steer clear of sugary, processed food such as cereals or smoothies and eat more fresh, nutrient-rich food, such as vegetables, fish, nuts and seeds. 

Believe it or not, how we eat our food impacts our mood and health too. Try not to feel anxious when you sit down to eat because it can negatively impact your digestive system. Thoroughly chewing your food also provides your body with a greater chance of getting all the vitamins and nutrients it needs to help you stay healthy and keep low mood and anxiety at bay.

for more mental health-related insight…

Take a look at our range of online courses focused on looking after and understanding your mental health. They cover a host of topics, including skills to relieve anxiety, navigating burnout and handling personal change.

Every day and exceptional things can affect us all at some point in our lives. We're here for you. We can arrange for you to receive counselling sessions to help you work through any difficulties you're facing. Our support is free, impartial and confidential.

The information in this article is for educational purposes and should not replace medical advice. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition. If you have a diagnosed medical condition, you should consult a doctor before making any major changes to your diet. Some supplements may interact with medications and you should check with your GP before commencing any supplement programme.

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