If you’ve ever felt anxious, jittery, wired or jumpy after eating or drinking, you’re not alone. Many people can feel that way without realizing the connection between what they eat and drink and feelings of anxiety.
“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,” says Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food” based in Boston.
Certain foods can contribute to anxiety or trigger such feelings by producing blood sugar spikes, says Maggie Michalczyk, a registered dietitian based in the greater Chicago area.
“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.”
Additionally, a lot of the comfort foods that many people consume during stressful times can actually provoke anxiety. Highly processed foods — like breads, cakes, processed meats, cheese and ready-made meals — could trigger anxiety by increasing inflammation in the body, says Dr. Daniel Devine, a Philadelphia-based, dual-board certified internist and geriatrician and co-founder of Devine Concierge Medicine. These foods are low in fiber and are thought to disturb the normal gut microbiome, a collection of more than 100 trillion microbes that live on and in your body, mostly in the large intestine. There are between 300 and 500 different strains of bacteria in your colon, which helps your gut keep your digestive system healthy.
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 and anxiety levels.
[READ: What Is High-Functioning Anxiety?]
Foods to Avoid to Reduce Anxiety
The types of foods and beverages that can contribute to anxiety are varied, and it’s important to know what they are.
Here are 9 of the worst foods, drinks and ingredients to consume for anxiety:
— Artificial sweeteners.
— Cakes, cookies, candy and pies.
— Coffee, tea and energy drinks.
— Fruit and vegetable smoothies with high glycemic indexes.
— Fried foods.
— Processed meats, cheese and ready-made meals.
— Sugary drinks.
Some people think that alcoholic beverages can have a calming effect and see nothing wrong in having a few drinks or beers at the end of the day. In moderation, consuming alcoholic beverages in small to moderate amounts isn’t harmful for most people. If people choose to drink, the federal government’s drinking guidelines advise that people of drinking age imbibe moderately, with men consuming two or fewer drinks a day and women one or fewer daily.
However, for the millions of people in the U.S. with alcohol use disorder, consuming alcoholic beverages can heighten their risk for depressive disorders, according to research published in October 2019 in the journal Alcohol Research: Current Reviews. Alcohol use disorder and depressive disorders appear to share a number of behavioral, environmental risk factors, but these shared risks are not well understood, researchers wrote. There are about 15 million people ages 12 and above with alcohol use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Some people view artificial sweeteners as healthier alternatives to added sugar, fructose and honey because they contain fewer calories, which can be appealing if you’re trying to lose weight. However, consumers should beware of the ways artificial sweeteners may affect their mood. Specifically, artificial sweeteners found in many soft drinks and sold in packets are associated with neuropsychiatric issues, Naidoo says.
In a study published in 2018 in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience, researchers found that the artificial sweetener aspartame has been linked to behavioral and cognitive problems, with possible neurophysiological symptoms that include anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritable moods, headache and learning problems. Aspartame releases compounds that can inhibit the synthesis and release of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, which affects mood, motivation and pleasure, and serotonin, which helps stabilize your mood, researchers wrote. The artificial sweetener acts as a chemical stressor by increasing levels of plasma cortisol and produces excess free radicals, which can damage healthy cells in the body and may be linked to chronic diseases like cancer. The researchers warned that people should consume aspartame with caution because of its possible negative effects on brain health.
[Read: Keto-Friendly Sweeteners.]
Cakes, cookies, candy and other foods with added sugar
A number of foods and condiments contain surprisingly high amounts of hidden sugar, which a raft of research suggests can lead to feelings of anxiety.
For example, in August 2019, the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews published research reviewing more than 300 studies scrutinizing the interaction between sugar consumption and emotions and stress. Researchers found that a diet high in sugar is associated with anxiety, cognitive impairment and depression. Additionally, researchers wrote that there’s overwhelming evidence that sugar consumption is associated with altered emotional processing in humans and rats.
Another study, published in 2017 in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests that consuming sugar from sweetened foods and beverages increases the risk of incident mood disorders in men and provides some evidence of recurring mood disorders in men and women.
To reduce the risk of feeling anxious, experts encourage people to be mindful of their sugar intake.
“We find added and refined sugars in so many foods 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. Watching for those and being careful about what you’re consuming becomes so important.”
Michalczyk recommends staying away from foods with added sugar or reserving them for occasional treats. If you’re craving something sugary, reach for fresh fruit for a healthy alternative to satisfying your sweet tooth.
Coffee, tea and energy drinks
Beverages that contain caffeine, such as coffee, certain teas and energy drinks, can increase anxiety.
“The more caffeine you consume, the greater the chance of anxiety flaring,” Devine says.
This is because caffeine activates adenosine receptors, which are involved in mediating the body’s fight-or-flight response, in the peripheral and central nervous systems.
Experts say that excessive intake of caffeine can boost the risk of panic attacks, particularly in people who are already suffering from psychiatric conditions and in adolescents.
Research published in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry in 2022 concluded that consuming the amount of caffeine roughly equivalent to five cups of coffee induces panic attacks in a large proportion of people with panic disorder. Caffeine also boosts anxiety in panic disorder patients, as well as among healthy adults, researchers wrote. The study’s findings suggest that caffeine zeroes in on important mechanisms in the body related to the pathophysiology of panic disorder.
In addition to panic attacks, consuming caffeine is associated with other negative mood effects on schoolchildren. For example, a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology suggests an association between caffeine consumption and anxiety, depression and stress in kids in secondary school. Researchers found higher intakes of caffeine — more than 1,000 milligrams a week — to be a risk factor for anxiety and depression, although these effects were sometimes found at lower doses.
[SEE: Food Swaps to Lose Weight and Eat Healthier.]
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. The glycemic index is a scale that tells you how fast a food will be converted into sugar once it’s in your body. It is determined by how much a 50-gram portion of each food raises blood sugar for two hours after consumption.
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:
— Green vegetables, such as spinach, kale and Swiss chard.
A lot of people enjoy eating fried foods, but the problem with these foods is they’re often cooked with vegetable oils, a process which can increase inflammation and therefore contribute to feelings of anxiety, Michalczyk says.
Many experts are concerned that omega-6 fatty acids found in seed oils — such as safflower, sunflower and grapeseed oils — used in cooking could contribute to inflammation. The body converts linoleic acid, the most common type of omega-6, into arachidonic acid, which plays a complex role in inflammation and has been associated with both inflammatory and non-inflammatory reactions in the body. As a result, that inflammation can contribute to generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder and certain phobias, like agoraphobia and social phobia, according to studies, including 2017 research published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.
The good news is that baked versions of your favorite fried foods can be just as delicious, Michalczyk says. Reach for baked french fries or make an air-fried version of your favorite deep-fried foods to satisfy your cravings without the negative effects these items might have on your mental well-being.
Although gluten is not usually discussed in terms of anxiety, a connection may exist, according to research published in February 2015 in the journal Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine. The study demonstrated that negative emotional perceptions of celiac disease are linked to depression and anxiety. In turn, depression and anxiety are associated with poorer adherence to a gluten-free diet.
Another study, published in April 2014 in the journal Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, included 22 participants with irritable bowel syndrome between the ages of 24 and 62 whose symptoms were controlled by a gluten-free diet. Short-term exposure to gluten induced feelings of depression in the participants, researchers concluded.
“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 try not to demonize ingredients,” Naidoo says. “But at the same time, there is an association (between gluten) and anxiety.”
Processed meats, cheeses and ready-made meals
Processed 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.
Research published by Public Health Nutrition in July 2022 suggests a connection between consuming ultra-processed foods and feelings of depression. The researchers used data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Survey between 2007 and 2012 and found that people who consumed higher amounts of ultra-processed food were significantly more likely to report mild depression, more mentally unhealthy days and more anxious days.
Consuming high amounts of sugar from sugary foods or beverages can cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, which can affect your mood. Many soft drinks, fruit juices and energy drinks have high amounts of sugar, between 22 ounces and 46 ounces per 12-ounce serving.
The federal government recommends that individuals ages 2 and older get no more than 10% of their daily calories from added sugars. Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, that means you should not consume more than 200 calories of added sugar. This is equivalent to approximately 12 teaspoons of sugar.
“Soda pop and fruit juice are typically loaded with sugar,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, a registered dietitian based in Sparta, New Jersey. “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.
If you enjoy fruit juice, you don’t have to avoid it completely, but be on the lookout for varieties that add additional sugars to the juice.
“Look at fruit juice labels under ‘added sugar’ to determine if a fruit juice has added sugars or contains only naturally occurring sugar,” Palinski-Wade says. “Some 100% fruit juices, such as prune juice, also provide a source of fiber. In fact, 100% prune juice contains 3 grams of fiber per serving, which can support gut health and which may help to promote steady blood sugar levels, as well as provide a feeling of fullness.”
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, such as:
— 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 nutrients — 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.
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Foods and Drinks Linked to Anxiety: What to Avoid and What to Eat originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 03/17/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.