Anxious, jittery, wired and jumpy — people can have those sensations after eating or drinking, although they may not make the connection.
“They feel like they can’t really settle down,” says Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist based in Boston, Massachusetts, and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food.” It’s “almost a feeling of internal panic when they eat certain foods, but sometimes they don’t realize it’s related to the food they’ve consumed,” she says.
“When you eat something that’s high in sugar, it causes your blood sugar to spike and then drop faster than it would if you had something that was more balanced with protein, carbs and fat,” Michalczyk says. “This spike and drop can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and feel almost like a panic attack for some.”
Cakes, cookies, candy, pies, soda pop and other sugary foods can lead to such blood spikes.
Additionally, a lot of the comfort foods that many people consume during stressful times can actually provoke anxiety, says Dr. Daniel Devine, a Philadelphia-based, dual-board certified internist and geriatrician and co-founder of Devine Concierge Medicine.
[See: Heart-Healthy Snacks.]
Highly processed foods like breads, cakes, processed meats, cheese and ready-made meals invoke anxiety by increasing inflammation in the body, Devine says. These foods are low in fiber and are thought to disturb the normal gut microbiome.
“A diet high in refined carbohydrates and fats leads to high overall levels of inflammation in the body,” reaching the central nervous system and affecting our mood. That leads to greater levels of anxiety, Devine says.
Foods to Avoid to Reduce Anxiety
Here are 10 of the worst foods, drinks and ingredients to consume for anxiety:
— Cakes, cookies, candy and pies.
— Processed meats, cheese and ready-made meals.
— Coffee, tea and energy drinks.
— Fruit and vegetable smoothies with high glycemic indexes.
— Artificial sweeteners.
— Hidden sugars.
— Processed vegetable oils.
1. Cakes, cookies, candy and pies.
Foods high in sugar can create spikes in your blood sugar, which is associated with anxiety, Michalczyk says. Stay away from foods with added sugar, or reserve them for special, occasional treats. If you want something sweet, try fresh fruit, like blueberries, peaches, plums, cherries, persimmons and nectarines.
2. Sugary drinks.
Soda pop and fruit juice are typically loaded with sugar. For example, a 12-ounce can of soda can contain 8 to 13 teaspoons of sugar, depending on the type. Many fruit juices are also loaded with sugar, but don’t contain the amount of fiber that fruit contains. Fiber slows your digestion, which helps you avoid blood sugar spikes.
3. Processed meats, cheeses and ready-made meals.
These foods are associated with inflammation, which can produce anxiety. These kinds of foods are also low in fiber and are believed to disturb the gut microbiome, Devine says. Your gut microbiome is typically a diverse mix of microorganisms living in the gut. A healthy microbiome helps the body function properly.
4. Coffee, tea and energy drinks.
Beverages that contain caffeine, such as coffee, tea and energy drinks, can increase anxiety. “The more caffeine you consume, the greater chance of anxiety flaring,” Devine says. Research suggests that the effects are greatest in people who consume more than 5 cups of coffee a day. Caffeine activates adenosine receptors in the peripheral and central nervous systems. “Adenosine is involved in mediating the body’s fight-or-flight response,” Devine says.
Some people think that alcoholic beverages — which are depressants — can have a calming effect, Michalczyk says. But this idea can backfire, because drinking alcohol often leads to fragmented sleep and blood sugar spikes, especially if you drink on an empty stomach. Drinking alcohol excessively can lead to dehydration and physical hangover symptoms, which can lead to anxiety. Collectively, hangover symptoms like dehydration, poor sleep, depletion of B vitamins and the alcohol detox process can all lead to feelings of anxiousness and worry, she says.
6. Fruit and veggie smoothies without protein.
Smoothies are a great way to get the nutrition of various fruits and vegetables. However, if your smoothie only contains fruit or vegetables with high glycemic indexes, you may experience a spike and fall of your blood sugar level, which can lead to feelings of anxiety, Michalczyk says. Adding some protein to smoothies can help balance the carbohydrates and decrease the likelihood of sugar spikes.
These good sources of protein make great additions to smoothies:
— Protein powder.
7. Artificial sweeteners.
“There are impacts on anxiety from artificial sweeteners, and diet soda or other drinks that are sold as sugar-free,” Naidoo says. Although they may be OK for some people, others are significantly affected, she says. “Artificial sweeteners have been associated with neuropsychiatric problems, including anxiety,” according to an article she co-authored in the Feb. 12 issue of Frontiers in Psychiatry.
Although gluten is not usually discussed in terms of anxiety, a connection may exist. “There’s a good amount of evidence showing that gluten is something that individuals with anxiety should consider maybe cutting out, or cutting back on, to see if they might have an improvement,” Naidoo says. In addition to celiac disease, gluten is also an issue for those with a condition called non-celiac sensitivity. “I don’t usually ask for people to eliminate food groups and things like that — I try not to demonize ingredients,” she says. “But at the same time, there is an association with anxiety.”
9. Hidden sugars.
Certain foods may not taste sweet but nevertheless contain sugar. “We find added and refined sugars in so many food these days,” Naidoo says. “Often you don’t realize they’re in savory foods like salad dressings, store-bought tomato sauces and things like ketchup.” Stealth sugar in foods can “really drive anxiety,” she says. “So watching for those and being careful about what you’re consuming becomes so important.”
10. Processed vegetable oils.
If eating fast food makes you feel jittery, there’s a possible explanation. “Fast-food places often use processed vegetable oils, and those actually worsen symptoms of anxiety,” Naidoo says. Corn oil and soybean oil are among those that are most concerning, she says. By contrast, she notes that avocado and olive oil are fruit oils, so they don’t fall into that category.
Watch out for withdrawal. Abruptly cutting yourself off from caffeine or alcohol can actually cause a rebound effect, Naidoo points out. For example, somebody used to drinking four cups of coffee a day who suddenly starts their next day with no coffee whatsoever will likely feel jittery and uneasy.
“Most people know they might have a headache from caffeine withdrawal, but they can also appear extremely anxious because it’s almost as if that substance in their body is missing,” Naidoo says. “Same thing with alcohol.”
If you’re taking caffeine and alcohol out of your diet, consider gradually decreasing the amount you drink to help prevent these rebound effects. Talk with your health care provider about best strategies for weaning off of medications, drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. It may also be prudent to enlist the help of a nutritionist as you make dietary changes.
Foods to Add to Reduce Anxiety
Adding calming foods to your diet is a good way to stave off anxiety. “High-fiber foods break down much more slowly in your body and they prevent that insulin spike and that sugar crash that people might feel when they eat a sugary doughnut,” Naidoo says. “If you can even out your blood sugar it can be more calming for your system.” Round out your diet with anxiety-reducing foods and nutrients:
— Fermented foods such as kombucha, miso, tempeh and pickled vegetables.
— Spices like turmeric with a pinch of black pepper.
— Herbal teas such as chamomile, lavender and passion flower.
Make sure you’re not short on essential minerals such as magnesium, potassium and selenium in your blood, Naidoo adds. Having adequate levels of the B vitamins and vitamin D are also important in lowering anxiety. You can easily incorporate foods containing these nutrients in your diet or take supplements if needed, she says.
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Update 07/07/21: This story was previously published on an earlier date and has been updated with new information.