As a registered dietitian, I’m often asked if there are certain foods or food groups to include or eliminate to manage anxiety or other mental health issues. There isn’t one miracle superfood or food group that will quell anxious thoughts, just like there isn’t one food that makes anxiety worse.
“In my opinion, the idea that cutting out entire food groups is the solution to anxiety is problematic and creates confusion for us and for our bodies,” says dietitian Erin Schulberg, owner of FedUp Nutrition. She adds that there is so much conflicting information about diet “that many people get overwhelmed and confused about what’s going to benefit them the most.”
4 Tips for Managing Anxiety With Nutrition
1. Don’t Undereat
Feeding ourselves enough food is one of the foundational aspects of cultivating and sustaining physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
“Consistently undereating—whatever the reason—impacts our ability to focus, regulate emotions, make decisions, manage impulse control, and think rationally,” says Courtney Plush, owner of Courtney Plush Nutrition. “All of those functions are important in the day-to-day management of anxiety.”
So, if ensuring energy (calorie) adequacy is the first step in setting a foundation for anxiety management, you may be thinking: How much should I be eating?
We are all born with hormone-regulated hunger and fullness cues that tell us how much we need and when we are done. When we trust our cues and let them guide our intake, we will meet our energy needs.
[Read: “Want to Try Intuitive Eating? Here Are 5 Ways to Get Started.”]
Here are a few general rules of thumbs to help you make sure you are fully nourished each day:
- Have regular meals and snacks throughout the day, every three to five hours. Doing so keeps blood sugars stable and cortisol levels from increasing.
- Honor your hunger and fullness cues when you are connected to them. “If hunger cues are offline, which is often the case with high anxiety, use alarms and alerts as reminders to keep meals and snacks on track throughout the day,” Plush says. For those who have struggled with an eating disorder, disordered eating, or have been dieting for an extended period, she recommends seeking guidance from a nutrition professional with knowledge and training in mental health and eating concerns.
- Include foods you enjoy! Being fully nourished also means enjoying what we are eating.
2. Balance All Three Macronutrients (Including Carbs!)
Often my nutrition clients who are most anxious are lacking the macronutrient group that is most demonized and feared in our culture: carbs. Carbs are, in fact, our bodies’ and brains’ preferred fuel sources and should be included regularly in meals and snacks, along with the other two macros: fat and protein.
“One of the most basic factors impacting mental health in general that often gets overlooked in our culture is whether we are taking in enough energy from all three macronutrients to support balanced brain chemistry, mental functioning, and emotional regulation,” Plush says. “Protein, carbohydrates, and fats all play vital roles in the synthesis and utilization of the mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters in our brains.”
To strike a balance with your macronutrients, include all three in each meal and at least one or two in each snack and fill in with micronutrient-rich veggies. Below are some examples of balanced meals and snacks that can help you manage anxiety.
- Cheese and chicken (fat, protein) quesadillas made with tortillas (carb), guacamole (fat), and veggies.
- Veggie burger made with black bean patty (protein), bun (carb), cheese (protein/fat), with side of sweet potato fries (carb/fat) and a side salad.
- Salmon (protein/fat), potatoes roasted in olive oil (carb, fat), and veggies.
- Nourish Bowl with rice (carb), chickpeas (protein), avocado (fat), dressing (fat), and veggies.
- Apple (carb) with peanut butter (fat, protein)
- Crackers (carb) with hummus (fat) and cucumber slices
- Energy bites (carb, fat, protein)
- Ice cream cone (carb, fat)
3. Normalize All Food
Having a peaceful relationship to food is easier said than done. But if we’re at war with food and our bodies, we are bound to live with increased anxiety. “Anxiety and stress about weight and eating can lead to making nutrition decisions that actually perpetuate anxiety and stress,” Plush says. “In our culture that idealizes thinness, there is a skewed sense of how much energy our bodies and brains actually need to function, not just properly but optimally. If we are intentionally undereating to lose weight, we are laying the physiological groundwork for increased stress, hypervigilance to threat, and low energy availability to every cell in our bodies.”
Being in those compromised states can increase anxiety and thought patterns that disrupt work, sleep, and free time. Practicing mindfulness with anxious thoughts and difficult emotions and practicing affirming self-talk also become more difficult if we are undernourished, according to Plush. “Moving toward adequate nutrition, along with working on body acceptance and making peace with all foods, can reduce anxiety, not just around food, but in all areas of a person’s life,” she says.
If you find you are feeling anxious around food and it’s taking up more mental space than what feels healthy, a good place to start is doing the work of putting all foods on equal ground. “Try not to judge the food you are choosing to eat because there are no good or bad foods. All foods provide us energy—it just comes in many different forms,” Schulberg says. “It helps significantly to remember that food is not moral and therefore we are not good or bad for eating certain ways.”
4. Incorporate Soothing Practices Into Mealtimes
Plush recommends tools like deep belly breathing, using a weighted blanket, and eating with a trusted loved one.
For your newest anxiety management tool, try putting on your nutrition armor of adequacy, consistency, balance, and permission to enjoy food. Chances are good you will be able to handle whatever comes your way with a little more peace.
Feel good at mealtime with these 16 mindful eating affirmations.