It’s no secret that what we eat can have an effect on our mental state, mood and sense of well-being. The phrase “you are what you eat” became popular in the early 1900s, when scientists and researchers became more aware of the connection between nutrition and overall health and quality of life.
In more recent years, the link between food and mood has become even more apparent and studies have found some surprising overlap between diet and certain mental health symptoms. Although it appears that some individuals are more sensitive to the ingredients they consume, science is clear that being conscious and intentional about what you put into your body can affect your emotional and mental experience as much as it affects your physical health.
Anxiety is a common mental health struggle. In fact, some estimates indicate that more than 40 million adults struggle with anxiety in a given year—that’s nearly half of the population. While various treatments for anxiety exist—from prescription medication to talk therapy to meditation and yoga—a change in diet has been shown to supplement these treatments and reduce symptoms of anxiety. Conversely, certain ingredients have been shown to have an adverse effect on those who struggle with anxiety.
Here are five foods and ingredients to avoid if you want to lower your chances of an anxiety or panic attack.
- Caffeine. While a strong cup of joe may get you out of bed in the morning and provide a jolt of energy to get you through the day, many individuals who experience anxiety find that caffeine makes their symptoms worse. Caffeine can increase heart rate, cause jitters, and put the nervous system on high alert, which can set off an anxiety or panic attack in some individuals. And coffee isn’t the only culprit. If you are sensitive to caffeine, look out for hidden sources in foods and beverages other than coffee, such as chocolate, tea, energy drinks, and soda.
- Sugar. In general, sugar is known to have harmful effects on the body and can also negatively impact mental health. Not only can the common “sugar crash” make an individual feel irritable, shaky, and tense after eating foods high in sugar, but quickly-changing blood sugar levels can worsen the symptoms of anxiety and the body’s ability to respond to stress. Low blood sugar can also put the body into a stress response and may simulate or worsen the symptoms of an anxiety attack.
- Fat. Fat is an essential nutrient that we need to survive and many of the plant-based sources of fat are healthy and can actually help us feel better and sustain our energy over long periods of time. However, the Western diet is chock-full of animal fats, fried food, and other unhealthy fats that can have a detrimental effect. A meal high in fat and calories and low in nutrients can cause feelings of sluggishness and lethargy because the digestive system is in overdrive. This in turn can cause feelings of anxiety or depression which may fuel emotional eating and the consumption of more unhealthy fats. This spiral of unhealthy eating can cause individuals to stay stuck in unhelpful patterns that reinforce one another.
- Dyes and other additives. Snack foods and prepared foods often contain food dyes (such as Red #40 and Yellow #5) and other additives such as MSG, high fructose corn syrups and artificial sweeteners. These additives can disrupt normal nervous system functions and lead to symptoms of anxiety in some individuals, according to Today. If you are sensitive to food additives, make sure you check the labels of snack foods and prepared foods to avoid accidentally ingesting them.
- Gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and certain cereal grains. It is estimated that about 6-7 percent of the population is sensitive to gluten and may experience adverse effects after eating it, ranging from digestive problems to psychological ones. According to Healthline, anxiety is one of the symptoms that those with gluten sensitivity may experience after eating foods high in gluten, such as bread and pasta.
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