Anti-Anxiety Diet: The Ultimate Guide.
Poor diet won’t cause health anxiety, nor will a healthy diet cure it... but you’ve heard the saying “you are what you eat,” right? Experience tells me it’s 100% accurate.
Cleaning up my diet was a major factor in my 60-day health anxiety recovery.
What you eat directly affects how you feel. If you feel like crap - anxious, exhausted and burnt-out - maybe it’s time you took a look at your diet. 🤔
Constantly consuming foods that promote anxiety symptoms and weaken your body’s ability to respond to (and recover from) stressful or anxious situations, unnecessarily prolongs your health anxiety recovery.
I like to think of nutrition like a bank account. Make consistent, regular deposits (by eating wholesome foods rich in anti-anxiety nutrients) and you’ll be surprised at how quickly your savings grow... and health improves. The occasional withdrawal (by indulging in less-nutritious foods) will make no difference... but withdraw too much, too often, and you’ll be right back where you began.
“Eating healthier” is a good start... but in the case of health anxiety it’s important to understand exactly how the foods you eat impact the relationship between your brain and your gut (often called the “second brain”), since about 95% of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood) receptors are found in the lining of the gut.
Ready to create your anti-anxiety diet? Let’s do it! 😀
Foods that raise anxiety (foods to avoid with health anxiety)
Here’s the deal… by avoid, I don’t necessarily mean you must entirely eliminate every food listed below. Eliminate what you can (and want to), reduce the rest. It’s important that you enjoy the foods you love, too! Bank account analogy applies.
Alcohol is a depressant. It has a sedative effect that calms the central nervous system.
At first glance, alcohol can provide temporary relief from stress and anxiety - making a few drinks look pretty appealing to someone with an anxiety disorder. So what’s the big deal?
Welllll…. As the alcohol is metabolized, dehydration sets in and blood sugar falls - both of which can raise anxiety.
In time, one builds a tolerance toward alcohol, requiring more and more in order to achieve the desired sedative effect. In time, regular use alters serotonin (a feel-good neurotransmitter) levels in the brain, worsening anxiety symptoms.
Plus, alcohol is bad for your health and has the potential to cause irreparable damage over time - a dangerous habit for someone with health anxiety.
If you know me at all, you’ll know I LOVE COFFEE. And CHOCOLATE.
It’s well known fact that both contain plenty of caffeine.
Caffeine is the world’s most-consumed psychoactive drug. It’s a central nervous system stimulant.
Physically, caffeine causes blood vessels to constrict, increasing blood pressure. It can also cause increased heart rate and body temperature, along with trembling and sweating - symptoms that closely resemble acute anxiety reactions.
Psychologically, caffeine can cause jitteriness, nervousness, insomnia and you guessed it - anxiety.
For someone challenged by health anxiety, too much caffeine consumption can even trigger a panic attack.
In moderation, caffeine may not cause physical or psychological symptoms, but the more you consume, the greater your risk.
Caffeine can be found in:
Coffee (including decaffeinated coffee in very small amounts)
Tea (Green or black)
Chocolate (including chocolate-flavoured ice cream, snacks, breakfast cereals and protein bars)
Pop (soft drinks)
Weight loss supplements
Refined sugar enters the bloodstream rapidly, causing a massive spike in your blood glucose (blood sugar).
Insulin is secreted to bring blood sugar back down to earth, fast-followed by stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) to prevent your blood sugar from crashing.
The symptoms brought on by the rapid swings in blood sugar can resemble those of anxiety or panic.
Symptoms of high blood sugar (during a sugar rush):
Symptoms of low blood sugar (during the inevitable sugar crash):
Bad news for someone challenged by health anxiety.
Make no mistake: Sugar contained in fruit is GOOD. It’s healthier, and, in adequate supply, is stored by your liver as glycogen and released as glucose into the bloodstream over time to help balance blood sugar and prevent highs and lows.
Considering tickling your taste buds with artificial sweeteners instead? Not so fast. Regular consumption of artificial sweeteners contributes to low serotonin levels.
Processed foods are generally high in highly-refined sugars and wheat flours that are quickly converted into sugar. Aside from the downsides listed above, sugar is also known to feed pathogens in your gut (your “second brain” where 90% of serotonin is produced, aided by the “good” microbes present in your gut).
Processed foods also contain vegetable oils (rich in harmful omega-6 fatty acids) and a ton of additives and preservatives, including emulsifiers, which disrupt the normal flora (the healthy bacteria and microbes in your gut), raising inflammation, reducing your ability to digest the healthy foods you eat and produce adequate serotonin.
Fried foods, often cooked in hydrogenated oils and coated in white flours, are hard to digest, have poor nutritional value, and contribute to cardiovascular problems like high blood pressure and heart disease. Give your “second brain” some love, and it’ll love you back.
Dairy products not only raise inflammation, causing bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea. It can also boost adrenaline levels and deplete magnesium (needed to regulate cortisol, balance blood sugar, support thyroid function, sleep and hormone creation).
Eggs cause inflammatory responses in a surprisingly high percentage of the population, which can promote symptoms throughout the body, and are best minimized or avoided as you overcome your anxiety disorder and any associated physiological symptoms.
Gluten, a protein found in wheat flour, is inflammatory, damaging the intestinal wall, reducing your ability to absorb nutrients like zinc, B vitamins and vitamin D. Gluten also inhibits production of tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted into serotonin.
Aged (fermented, cured, smoked and cultured) foods
As foods age, they ferment. As high-protein foods ferment, proteins in the food are broken down into biogenic amines (most notably, histamine).
Histamine is a neurotransmitter that has the ability to increase adrenaline (your fight or flight hormone), raising anxiety, especially in people with an anxiety disorder.
Foods to watch out for include: Aged, smoked or cured meats and fish, sausages, aged cheeses, yogurts, sour cream, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, champagne and red wine.
Foods that reduce anxiety (best foods for health anxiety)
Every single system and process in your body depends on water.
Even mild dehydration has adverse effects on these systems, reducing their efficiency, which can manifest physically as fatigue and mood changes.
Up to 75% of the population may suffer from chronic dehydration (I used to be one of them), and dehydration almost always leads to anxiety - so it’s critical you drink enough water every day.
How much water you need depends on factors including your gender, age, body weight, activity level and more.
To get a general idea of how much water you need:
Multiply your body weight (in pounds) by ⅔ to reveal the number of fluid ounces you require per day.
Add 12 fluid ounces for every 30 minutes you work out per day.
For me, that’s 4.23L/day.
You can supplement your water intake by enjoying foods packed with plenty of water, such as: Melons (especially watermelon), berries, oranges, and celery.
Unlike simple sugars found in processed foods and sweets that rapidly enter the bloodstream, complex carbohydrates are metabolized slowly.
For this reason, complex carbohydrates (like fiber and starch) help maintain more consistent blood glucose levels, avoiding the rapid swings in blood sugar that lead to anxiety and anxiety-like symptoms.
Examples of complex carbohydrate rich foods include:
Sweet potato (with skin)
Yam (with skin)
Potatoes (with skin)
Brown rice (such as basmati)
Whole wheat bread
Whole wheat pasta
Beans (like kidney beans)
Vitamin B1 helps balance blood sugar levels. Blood sugar rushes and crashes are a major cause of anxiety and anxiety-like symptoms.
Vitamin B3 helps you relax by increasing blood flow, reducing blood pressure and eliminating excess adrenaline from the body. It also helps balance cholesterol levels in the bloodstream.
Vitamin B5 supports the adrenal glands, which helps regulate metabolism and the stress response.
Vitamin B6 helps synthesize serotonin and norepinephrine (which helps manage stress).
Vitamin B9 (Folate) is involved in the synthesis of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.
Vitamin B12 helps synthesize myelin, which is needed to maintain healthy nervous system function. It’s also an important factor in the metabolism of fatty acids and amino acids. Vitamin B12 deficiency can promote anxiety.
Foods rich in B vitamins include:
Meat (pork, beef, liver), for B1, B3, B5, B6, B12.
Poultry (chicken, turkey), for B3, B5, B6.
Fish (salmon, tuna, trout, cod), especially for B1, B5, B6 and B12.
Whole grains for B1, B3, B5, B6.
Oatmeal B1, B3, B5, B6.
Nuts for B1, B3, B6 and B9.
Potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams for B1, B3, B5, B6.
Asparagus for B1, B2, B3, B6, B9.
Leafy green vegetables (spinach, cabbage, brussel sprouts) for B9.
Coffee for B5.
Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that reduces oxidative stress in the body (which, in turn, reduces neuropsychological symptoms like anxiety and depression).
Vitamin C also helps convert dopamine (the pleasure hormone) into norepinephrine (which helps the body recover from stress), and plays an important role in nervous system cell development and myelin synthesis.
Foods rich in vitamin C include:
Berries (strawberries, blueberries, cranberries).
Melons (cantaloupe, watermelon).
Citrus fruit (oranges, grapefruit, lemon, lime).
Leafy green vegetables (kale, cabbage, bok choy, brussel sprouts, spinach, parsley).
Magnesium (also known as the “original chill pill”) is a crucial ingredient in numerous biochemical processes throughout the entire body, including the stress response.
Also a natural muscle relaxant, magnesium has the ability to suppress or soften activation of the fight-or-flight response in the brain, as well as reduce the adrenal glands’ sensitivity to ACTH. Finally, it can prevent the introduction of stress hormones to the brain.
Stress causes rapid depletion of magnesium stores, so it’s vital that you get enough magnesium through your diet.
Thing is, many people don’t. Magnesium intake is on the decline in recent decades due to municipal water treatment and depletion of magnesium from modern soil.
Magnesium deficiency is a known contributor to the development of an anxiety disorder.
Foods rich magnesium include:
Nuts (cashew, almond, Brazil nuts).
Legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas, peas and soybeans).
Seeds (pumpkin, flax, chia, sesame, sunflower seeds).
Leafy greens (kale, spinach, Swiss chard).
Tryptophan is an essential (meaning, the body can’t make it on its own) amino acid that the body uses to synthesize serotonin, which promotes calm and eases anxiety.
Studies have shown that a diet rich in tryptophan has a positive affect on mood, including anxiety and depression.
Foods rich in tryptophan include:
Meat (beef, pork, lamb).
Poultry (chicken, turkey).
Fish (tuna, halibut, salmon, trout, snapper, mackerel, haddock & cod).
Shellfish (crap, octopus, clams, prawns, lobster, oysters and scallops).
The prevalence of vegetable oils in fried and processed foods in modern diets is resulting in rising intake of omega-6 fatty acids. Combined with greater insulin production due to rising consumption of highly-refined carbohydrates, and what do you get?
A disruption in the balance of arachidonic acid (or AA, the omega-6 fatty acid that causes brain inflammation) to eicosapentaenoic acid (or EPA, the omega-3 fatty acids that reduces brain inflammation) in the bloodstream.
Omega-3 fatty acids help protect the brain from inflammation caused by harmful omega-6 fatty acids. In fact, omega-3s are the only way to reduce the inflammation caused by omega-6s, which disrupt cell-to-cell communication, leading to anxiety and depression.
Foods rich in omega-3's:
Fatty cold-water fish (especially salmon tuna, mackerel and sardines).
Seeds (flaxseed, chia).
Zinc is an essential mineral which can only be obtained through the diet.
Zinc levels are high in the brain - especially in the hippocampus (the part of the brain that controls memory and mood).
Zinc deficiency can lead to a weakened immune system, more inflammation, and mental health issues like anxiety, depression, poor memory and more.
When under stress, zinc is excreted through the urine, sweat and saliva - so it’s especially important for someone with an anxiety disorder to ensure they consume enough zinc-rich foods.
Foods rich in zinc include:
Meat (beef, pork, lamb).
Nuts (especially cashews).
Potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams.
Maintaining a healthy gut flora is essential to good physical and mental health.
These live micro-organisms in your digestive tract help you:
Synthesize important vitamins (like biotin and vitamin K) and hormones (including 80-95% of serotonin).
Help develop the immune system.
Prevent growth of harmful species (like candida).
Disruption in the balance of gut flora can lead to gut permeability (leaky gut), inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, obesity, and a gut-brain axis that’s out of tune, leading to depression, anxiety and other disorders
Prebiotic foods are those which contain dietary fiber that feeds your gut flora, thereby promoting a healthy digestive tract.
Prebiotic foods include: Garlic, onions, artichokes, asparagus, bananas, whole grains, oatmeal, carrots, radishes, apples, berries, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds.
Foods high in antioxidants
Oxidation (the process of metabolizing oxygen) creates unstable molecules known as free radicals, which damage cell membranes, proteins, and DNA, among other structures in the human body.
Oxidation can be accelerated by stress, smoking, alcohol, environmental pollutants and more.
Too many free radicals can elevate the oxidative state of the body and lead to certain diseases. An elevated oxidative state (in other words, a lowered antioxidant state) is also highly correlated with anxiety.
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, preventing them from causing damage. This is why it’s so important that you consume plenty of foods rich in antioxidants.
Foods rich in antioxidants are many, including beans, berries, apples, nuts, whole grains, coffee, green tea (especially matcha) and dark chocolate. Take a look at this 2010 study, which evaluated the antioxidant content of 3,100 foods.
My absolute favourite anti-anxiety foods
🍓 Berries (especially blueberries)
Packed with antioxidants and vitamin C.
Gives anxiety a 1-2-3 punch with plenty of B vitamins, magnesium and probiotic fiber.
🐟 Salmon (especially wild, not farmed)
Rich in vitamins B12, B6, magnesium, protein and famously, omega-3 fatty acids.
🍗 Poultry (especially turkey and chicken)
High in tryptophan, zinc, vitamins B3 and B5.
Prebiotic with loads of B vitamins, C, complex carbohydrates and zinc.
Prebiotic and rich in B vitamins (including B9, or folate), zinc and magnesium.
An excellent source of vitamins B3, B5, B6, and magnesium.
🎃 Pumpkin seeds
Prebiotic and pumped full of B vitamins, magnesium, tryptophan, zinc and omega 3s.
🥜 Nuts (especially cashews and almonds)
Lots of B vitamins, magnesium and zinc.
🍫 Dark chocolate (70% or higher)
Prebiotic and rich in magnesium, tryptophan, zinc and antioxidants.
Anxiety and Eating Mindfully
Don’t skip meals
Skipping a meal may result in a blood sugar crash that causes you to feel nervous, exacerbating your anxiety symptoms.
Make sure to include fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates in every meal, especially breakfast. This will help stabilize blood glucose levels and make you feel fuller, longer, and your reduce cravings throughout the day.
Practice mindful eating
Eating too quickly (or in my case, virtually inhaling your food) is an anxious behaviour that feeds your anxiety more than it nourishes your body.
Allow plenty of time to enjoy your food. Take small bites. Chew your food. Pay attention to all your senses - the flavours, aromas, colours, textures (and sometimes even sounds) of your meal. You’ll improve your enjoyment and digestion of your meal - better nourishing your mind and body.
There will always be a hundred things you need to get done - but they’re rarely more important than a healthy meal to nourish your mind and body.
🍷 In your journal, make a list of all the foods you consume that may be contributing to your anxiety. How much, and how often, do you consume them? Which of these foods can you reduce, or eliminate entirely, and how? Make a plan.
🌱 Now, make a list of all the foods you consume that provide the nutrients needed to help reduce anxiety. Could you consume more of them? Are there any nutrients missing from your anti-anxiety diet? What foods will you add? Make a plan.
😕 Do you ever skip or rush your meals? How you can plan your day to better prioritize meal preparation and enjoyment?
✏️ Take this 90-second health anxiety (hypochondria) quiz to measure your progress and find out your next steps to overcoming health anxiety.
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