The Top 5 Foods to Avoid if You Have Anxiety

by Amylee Amos MS, RDN, IFMCPNutrition
Woman sitting and clutching her chest

The holiday season is officially in full swing. Despite stereotypical images of happy people laughing, smiling, and enjoying the festive atmosphere, for many the holidays provoke anxiety. Anxiety disorders are a common problem at all times of the year. The 1-year prevalence rate of anxiety disorders is 18.1% in the US population according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Numbers are significantly higher for those who encounter general, transient anxiety. Around the holidays, people experience anxiety surrounding increased social demands, family gatherings, and financial pressures to name a just few. If you are experiencing anxiety, avoid these 5 foods which have been shown to provoke anxiety. 

1. Alcohol

Many people can directly relate to the relationship between alcohol and anxiety, specifically if they have ever woken up riddled with anxiety after a night of having one too many drinks. Alcohol consumption affects the neurotransmitter systems through multiple mechanisms. Consumption of alcohol can diminish levels of serotonin and catecholamines. This disruption of the natural balance of neurotransmitters contributes to anxiety (1). If you have anxiety, choose nonalcoholic drinks or mocktails to avoid making your anxious feelings worse. 

2. Coffee and tea

1-2 cups of coffee or tea per day is generally tolerable for most people without impacting their mood. However, people who are more prone to anxiety report that caffeine increases their anxious feelings. Long term use of caffeine has been linked to anxiety and depression and caffeine intake should be avoided in those who are suffering from anxiety (2). Instead, either choose decaf coffee and tea or start your day with a cup of herbal tea, such as chamomile, mint, or tulsi. Beyond helping you avoid caffeine, these herbal teas confer their own unique health benefits. 

3. Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame among others alter the composition of the gut microbiome which can in turn affect your mental status (3). The fascinating gut-brain axis continues to be thoroughly studied. Current research suggests that changes in the gut microbiome influence mood and behavior (4). Specifically dysbiosis, an unfavorable balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome, is associated with anxiety (5). This is unsurprising given that these microbes that live in our gut directly communicate with the brain through the vagus nerve and regulate our hormones. 

Many people opt for beverages sweetened with artificial sweeteners thinking that substituting these for natural sugar is a good thing; however these artificial sweeteners consistently prove to do more harm than good- with their consumption resulting in overeating and glucose intolerance in addition to negatively impacting the gut microbiome (3). While some artificial sweeteners seem to be better than others (stevia and monk fruit being two such sweeteners), it’s best to avoid them all to the extent possible if you are suffering from anxiety. 

4. Sugary, processed foods

Sugary processed foods like candies, cakes, cookies, and muffins should be avoided if you have anxiety. These foods contribute to inflammation in the body through a trifecta of inflammatory ingredients: sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed vegetable oils. The mechanisms through which these foods contribute to inflammation are vast. People who suffer with anxiety disorders have elevated levels of inflammatory biomarkers in their blood. Some research even suggests a causal relationship between inflammation and certain neurological disorders (5). Thus, eliminating foods that contribute to inflammation in the body is essential. Focus instead on eating whole, plant foods that reduce inflammation such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. 

5. Sweetened beverages

Sweetened beverages like sodas, sweet coffees and teas, and even some juices can exacerbate feelings of anxiety. Unlike the sugar found in fruits which is packed with fiber and nutrients, these types of beverages can have extremely high amounts of sugar yet lack nutrients and fiber which would slow the absorption of the sugar. The immediate gush of sugar in the blood that results from drinking these kinds of beverages contributes to the creation of advanced glycation end products, which results in systemic inflammation. High levels of inflammation result in increased mood disturbances including anxiety (5). Additionally, the dramatic drop in blood sugar that follows an initial spike in blood glucose can cause a depression in mood that can contribute to feelings of anxiety. 

While treating anxiety is multifaceted, nutrition can play a significant part in managing the symptoms. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, sugary processed foods, and sweetened beverages. Instead fill your diet with whole plant foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes and drink lots of water and herbal teas. These foods and drinks prevent the metabolic states that contribute to anxiety and will give your mood a boost!


References:

  1. Castaneda et al., (1996). PMID: 8626352 
  2. Rakel, D. (2018). ISBN: 978-0-323-35868-2
  3. Suez et al. (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13793
  4. Mayer et al. (2015). https://doi.org/10.1172/JCI76304.
  5. Norwitz & Naidoo (2021). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.598119