Anxiety food to avoid

Salty snacks (iStock)

Over the past few years, I’ve endured a series of unforeseen events. Originally diagnosed with anxiety and depression at 14, I spent the majority of my life working through a condition that I immediately attributed to my environment. It wasn’t until 12 years later that things took a turn for the worst.

I was officially diagnosed with severe Generalized Anxiety and Panic Disorder at 26— a disorder that psychologically and socially crippled me. I battled a two-year drug addiction to my anxiety meds, and survived an accidental overdose due to a combination of anxiety pills and painkillers, both of which were prescribed to me.

I was fighting a war within myself that I was desperately losing. The day I contemplated taking my life was the day I recognized the importance of it. After hitting a dead end with my doctor, I set out on a quest to not only change, but save my life.

Today, I’m an author, a motivational speaker, a mindfulness coach and a wellness expert, specializing in the healthier management of anxiety. One of the first things I did when I embarked on this journey was research the role my diet played in my anxiety. The information was overwhelming.

Immediately I adjusted my diet, and I’ve never looked back. Over the years, I’ve learned which foods feed my anxiety and which foods don’t.

Below is a list of the top 10 foods that I personally avoid in the management of my anxiety:

1. Caffeine

A known stimulant and psychoactive drug, caffeine has long had a reputation for triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response. Very similar to the symptoms associated with anxiety, caffeine can also make its users feel nervous, nauseous, light headed, jittery and yes, even anxious. If you’re suffering through anxiety, I recommend reconsidering that morning cup of coffee and instead opt for an herbal tea or a green juice.

2. Artificial and refined sugars

This is one that seems hard to ignore simply due to the fact that sugar hides in everything! Studies have shown that although sugar does not cause anxiety, it does create changes in your body that can exacerbate anxiety symptoms and impairs the body’s ability to effectively cope with stress.

A sugar crash is similar to a caffeine crash, and can also cause mood changes, heart palpitations, difficulty concentrating and fatigue— all of which can be interpreted as the beginning stages of an anxiety or panic attack.

3. Gluten

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye products. For many anxiety sufferers, gluten can also be a huge trigger for anxiety symptoms. Research has now confirmed that people with Celiac disease and gluten intolerances (like myself) are at higher risk for anxiety, depression and mood disorders. Talk to your doctor about getting tested for Celiac or a gluten intolerance. Cutting out gluten could be the difference between living with anxiety and managing it for the better.

4. Processed foods

Generally, processed foods are high in the previous two items mentioned on this list, as well as a bunch of additional additives and preservatives. Refined flours and sugars are said to feed the harmful bacteria and microbes in the gut. With more research being conducted, the general consensus is that gut health is a major contributor to chronic anxiety, and many mood disorders can be treated by proliferating good bacteria in your gut. So, next time you’re at a family BBQ, avoid the grilled hot dogs and opt for the fruit salad.

5. Alcohol

We all enjoy an occasional drink, right? But what happens when that one glass of wine at dinner turns into three glasses of wine and dessert? Alcohol in excess or at all (for some), is said to induce the symptoms of anxiety. Alcohol is a toxin that leads to improper mental and physical functioning, by negatively impacting the levels of serotonin (the feel good chemical) in the brain.

Alcohol also affects the body and nervous system, and can cause hypersensitivity, increased heart rate, lowered blood sugar levels and acute dehydration. If you’re going out to dinner with a few colleagues, you may want to skip the drink menu this time around.

6. Dairy

I’m sure we all remember those Got Milk ads that popped up during the commercial break of our favorite TV shows. Well research shows that people who have anxiety say they’ve noticed an increase in anxiety symptoms within minutes of consuming dairy products. About 10 percent of adults are lactose intolerant, and even more are thought to have difficulty digesting the casein found in cow’s milk. Have I mentioned its impact on children?

The truth is, dairy is inflammatory. It wreaks havoc on the digestive system, causing, bloating, diarrhea and constipation, among other things. So if you’re looking for ways to manage your anxiety, I guess the answer to the question Got Milk?, should be a big, fat, NO!

7. Soda

Don’t think for a second because you started a sugar cleanse a week ago that you can still indulge in America’s favorite soft drink. In addition to the artificial food coloring and additives found in soda, aspartame is one of the most common (and possibly dangerous) ingredients found in things like diet soda and chewing gum. In addition to blocking the production of serotonin in our brains (like sugar), Aspartame is also believed to be responsible for headaches, insomnia, anxiety, mood swings and has been linked to certain forms of cancer. Still thirsty?

8. Fried foods

Not only are fried foods difficult to digest, but they also have very little nutrition. Combining poor food choices with unhealthy cooking processes is a sure-fire way to exacerbate your anxiety symptoms. Most fried foods like French fries, chicken and onion rings are cooked in hydrogenated oil. It not only does a number on your waistline, but it’s also terrible for your heart.

Fried foods also may increase your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Moderation is key. The next time you find yourself at Five Guys, try the kiddie size fry instead of the large.

9. Fruit juice

Fruit juice, just like soda and other store-bought beverages is packed with sugar. There are three different types of sugar: sucrose, glucose and fructose. Fructose is the sugar naturally found in fruits and vegetables, and is usually added to fruit juice and fruit flavored drinks. The problem is the body only processed fructose in the liver and is not the body’s preferred energy source. What protects us from absorbing too much fructose when we eat fruits and vegetables is the fiber. When we get rid of the fiber, we put our bodies at risk of overconsumption.

So if you want fruit juice, make it at home, and if you’re an avid juicer (like me), I recommend limiting the amount of fruit you put into your green juices. Stick to the 80/20 rule and you’ll be good to go.

10. Foods high in sodium

By now, we should all be aware of the fat-free craze of the past few decades. The sad reality of this fad is that most foods that are fat free are actually high in sugar and/or sodium. Researchers have concluded that too much sodium in our diets can have a negative effect on the body’s neurological system, causing fatigue and damaging the immune system. A restful sleep is a major key to a healthy mind, mood and body. Not to mention, the overconsumption of sodium leads to weight gain, high blood pressure and water retention.

Salt is essential in maintaining good health and a balanced diet, but too much can trigger panic episodes and send you down a slippery slope of anxiety, panic and depression.

Are you struggling to keep anxiety at bay even though you meet regularly with a therapist, take your medication as prescribed, and have a good support system? The truth is, treatment for anxiety shouldn’t stop when you leave your therapist’s office, screw the lid back on the pill bottle, or step away from your family and friends—effective anxiety management involves one other significant factor: your diet. If you haven’t tried tweaking what you eat then you may be missing an important opportunity to beat back your anxiety.

Doctors and dietitians are starting to understand more about how the nutritional properties of the foods we eat affect the brain. “There is a clear and important connection between the brain and the gut,” explains Jodi Godfrey, MS, RD, a health and nutrition educator. “Researchers now refer to the gut as the second brain. When essential nutrients are not sufficiently available, there is a direct effect on the production of neurotransmitters and brain chemistry that can increase or lessen anxiety-related behaviors.”

Does adjusting your diet to ease your anxiety seem daunting? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, reflecting on the choices you make when it comes to food is a straightforward, positive lifestyle change for your body and brain. “The most important dietary change for anyone who has anxiety to make is to plan meals around whole foods, lowering or eliminating the number of processed foods including sweets and snack foods,” advises Godfrey.

The modifications you can make to your diet are as simple as swapping out foods could be spiking your anxiety for foods that may lessen the severity of your symptoms. Avoid binge-eating your go-to comfort foods (which only leave you feeling guilty and more anxious) and enjoy nutritious superfoods with mood-boosting properties. You’ll feel better for it.

Start eating foods that help with anxiety and stress today by introducing these 8 simple food swaps into your diet:

1. Asparagus

Many studies going back to the 1960s indicate that many people who suffer from anxiety and depression have an elevated incident of folate deficiency. Asparagus is one vegetable that contains a valuable amount of this mood-boosting nutrient. One cup alone provides two-thirds of your daily recommended folate value.

Food Swap: Asparagus Spears Instead of Fries

Ditch the French Fries and sauté, steam, or grill some asparagus to serve as a side dish. If you tend to snack on fries, consider this substitute: dip cooked asparagus into salsa, hummus, or a bean dip.

2. Avocado

Vitamin B6 helps the body make several neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which influences mood. “The B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin, have positive effects on the nervous system. Deficiencies of these vitamins have been linked to increased anxiety in some people,” explains Godfrey. Avocados are rich in stress-relieving B vitamins and heart-healthy fat that may help to lessen anxiety. Vitamin E is a nutrient that is important for vision, reproduction and maintaining healthy skin. It’s also been connected with cognition, helps widen blood vessels and is needed for the formation of red blood cells. Because vitamin E is fat-soluble it’s only found in foods like nuts and avocados that have a high-fat content.

Food Swap: Non-Dairy Frozen Avocado Treat Instead of Ice Cream

Avocado ice cream? Yes, you heard that right. Next time you’re reaching for that pint of full-fat, calorie-laden ice-cream, whip up your own frozen avocado treat. Just blend avocado with a ripe banana, vanilla extract, almond milk, and sweetener. Freeze for a few hours and then dig in, knowing you’re boosting those B vitamins as you go!

3. Blueberries

When we’re anxious and stressed, our bodies crave vitamin C to help repair and protect our cells, and blueberries are packed full of it. Small but mighty, blueberries are bursting with antioxidants and vitamin C which have been shown to provide anxiety relief. One study1 examined the effects of oral vitamin C supplements on anxiety in a group of students and found that antioxidants may be useful for both the prevention and reduction of anxiety.

Food Swap: Blueberries Instead of Sugary Sweets

Reaching for sugar when hunger strikes causes the brain to work at a sub-optimal level and puts you at greater risk for depressive symptoms associated with anxiety. “The sweetness from blueberries is a better option acting as a positive immune booster; added sugars throw off the healthy bacterial balance in the gut that may increase anxiety,” Godfrey says.

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4. Turkey

Ever heard of tryptophan? It’s the nutrient in turkey that puts you to sleep after Thanksgiving dinner. Okay, it’s a little more than that. Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body needs to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps regulate sleep and mood. According to the University of Michigan2, tryptophan may help reduce anxious feelings.

Food Swap: Lean Turkey Instead of Fried Chicken

Avoid the temptation of picking up fried chicken on your way home by prepping your meals in advance. This way you can reap the benefits of tryptophan found in turkey. Fried foods introduce unhealthy fats and counter the good from the tryptophan that may help put you at ease when anxiety is looming. “Planning a meal with turkey diced into quinoa or brown rice and some added veggies will provide a wide range of healthy nutrients and support sound sleep,” suggests Godfrey.

5. Almonds

Researchers3 have shown that magnesium may be an effective treatment for anxiety-related symptoms, as inadequate magnesium reduces the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Just 1 ounce of almonds (that’s about 12 nuts) ­ contains 75mg of magnesium which is 19% of your daily recommended value. You can also find magnesium in foods such as legumes, seeds, and—everyone’s favorite­—avocado.

Food Swap: Almonds Instead of Cookies

Consuming artery-clogging trans fats, like those found in cookies, can increase your risk of depression by as much as 48%, according to one study.4 “Snack on nuts rather than cookies to ensure you are getting healthy fats and fiber that promote gut health, rather than the sugar that interrupts good bacteria,” says Godfrey. Next time you need a crunch, reach for a handful of almonds instead of reaching for cookies. If you are in dire need of a sweet, throw in a few dark chocolate chips with the almonds.

6. Yogurt

You might be surprised to learn that fermented food—including yogurt, one you might not ordinarily think of as falling into this category—can help reduce anxiety! A link has been found between the consumption of fermented, probiotic foods and a reduction in social anxiety.5 The best yogurts—Greek, plain versions in particular—that contain “live and active cultures” are guaranteed to have 100 million probiotic cultures per gram or about 25 billion probiotic cultures in a cup. Other probiotic foods: pickles, sauerkraut, kombucha, and miso.

Food Swap: Yogurt and Cereal Instead of Milk and Cereal

Mix up your breakfast by swapping out milk for yogurt with your cereal. Doing so may have a protective effect against social anxiety symptoms for those at a higher genetic risk.6 Symptoms of social anxiety include excessive fear of situations in which one may be judged, worry about embarrassment or humiliation, or concern about offending someone. If yogurt isn’t your thing, try incorporating sauerkraut or a pickle into your daily sandwich. Miso, a traditional Japanese seasoning, can be a substitute for parmesan in soups or noodle dishes!

7. Kale (or Arugula)

Researchers7 at the State University of New York found that anxious symptoms are linked with a lower antioxidant state and that antioxidants can help with mood, too. Dark, leafy greens like kale, which is rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C, are needed to boost antioxidant levels and support optimal brain functioning.

Food Swap: Kale Instead of Iceberg Lettuce

If you already eat salad or add lettuce to your sandwiches, replace it with kale. To reap the benefits without the bitter taste some find displeasing, add it to an omelet, soup or smoothie.

8. Salmon

According to another study8 from Ohio University, omega-3 fatty acids are particularly effective when it comes to foods that help with anxiety. You can find omega-3 fatty acids in foods like salmon, chia seeds, soybeans, and walnuts as well as cold-pressed olive oil. “Our brain requires the right dietary fats to function properly,” Godfrey says, “so you’ll want to eat enough of the beneficial fats that support a healthy brain-gut microbiome, which means replacing red meat with seafood.”

Food Swap: Salmon Instead of Steak

A juicy steak might be hard to pass up, but a diet rich in the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon helps keep cortisol and adrenaline from spiking when you’re feeling tense. Experiment by trying out different spices and flavor combinations when cooking salmon. Start simple. Sprinkle the fish with salt, pepper and garlic, add a few sprigs of rosemary, and top with some thinly sliced lemon. Delish!

Give these food swaps a try and see if modifying your diet helps reduce your anxiety!

Article Sources Last Updated: Oct 9, 2019

Does diet affect anxiety? If so, what should I eat, and which foods should I try to avoid?

People who suffer with anxiety should remember a few simple rules:

  • Low blood sugar, poor hydration, use of alcohol, caffeine, and smoking can also precipitate or mimic symptoms of anxiety.
  • Eating regular meals and preventing hypoglycemic states are therefore important.
  • Adequately hydrating with plain water is best, at least six to eight glasses a day.
  • While nicotine does not cause anxiety, withdrawal from nicotine can mimic anxiety, and people with anxiety may smoke to soothe themselves. It may become a problematic behavior, as nicotine can also raise blood pressure and heart rate, which are also symptoms of anxiety.
  • People who feel anxiety may lean on alcohol to calm their nerves, but excessive drinking can lead to its own set of emotional and physical problems.
  • Many sodas contain caffeine and have a high sugar content. Being aware of these factors and substituting plain water or sparking water for soda can be a healthier option.
  • Working toward a well-balanced diet with adequate fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and healthy fats remains a good recommendation for those who struggle with anxiety. Avoiding processed foods and foods high in sugar means the body experiences fewer highs and lows of blood sugar, which helps to further reduce feelings of anxiety. Very simply put, a sugar rush can mimic a panic attack.

For example, eating a frozen dinner and ice cream will affect you differently than eating chicken and broccoli with a pasta made from whole grains or quinoa. The second meal includes whole, unprocessed foods, and you control the amount of sugar, if any, added to the meal. It takes longer for your body to metabolize these foods, which helps you feel fuller for longer and keeps blood sugar levels steady, rather than yo-yoing up and down.

Does sugar increase anxiety symptoms?

Yes! And there are many hidden sugars in the foods we eat, including savory foods. Many people don’t realize this. One example is a popular store-bought tomato basil sauce. One half-cup serving (and very few people would eat just half a cup at a meal) contains 12 grams of sugar, which is 3 teaspoons (4 grams sugar = 1 teaspoon). Food labels in the US use grams, and many people do not really know how to interpret these. Recipes use ounces, pounds, teaspoons, and tablespoons, so this conversion becomes important for the consumer. So, if you used 1-1/2 cups of the pasta sauce, you would be consuming 36 grams or 9 teaspoons of sugar just from the sauce in your meal!

While your body needs a healthy balance of sugar, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to function, it is also that very balance that helps keep us healthy. Consuming sugar through natural sources such as a piece of fruit, and not fruit juice or dried fruit, affects your body differently than candy or hidden sugars in your foods.

The FDA has a new nutrition label law coming into effect which will list the added sugars on the nutrition label for consumers and provide some other helpful data.

Do anxiety symptoms improve when you cut back on sugar and feed your body the right foods?

It’s a good idea to talk with your doctor before making dramatic changes in what you eat. Involve a nutritionist (your doctor can refer you to one) if you need some extra guidance.

As with any dietary change, your body will need some time to adjust. If you are otherwise healthy and cut back on processed sugar, you may feel your anxiety slowly improve thanks to fewer ups and downs caused by the excess sugar. If you are only using diet to combat anxiety, this change may not be obvious or immediate. You may also need to speak to a doctor about a medication. An integrated treatment approach including talk therapy, mindfulness techniques, stress relief, good sleep hygiene, and a balanced diet are all equally important parts of your care.

What else should I know about diet and anxiety?

Anxiety is linked with many physical illnesses. In addition to taking guidance from your doctor about options for treating anxiety, you should augment that treatment by paying attention to how and what you eat. A review of the literature examining the effects of diet on anxiety-related behavior highlighted that foods high in fat and/or sugar, or that are highly palatable, can affect behavior in animal models, and may do the same in humans. More human studies are needed.

Some of the following tips may be useful for you:

  • eat a healthy and balanced diet along the lines of a Mediterranean diet
  • cut back on sugar and processed foods
  • cut back on caffeine, alcohol, and smoking cigarettes
  • eat foods rich in zinc, like whole grains, oysters, kale, broccoli, legumes, and nuts
  • eat foods rich in magnesium: fish, avocado, dark leafy greens
  • eat foods rich in vitamin B, such as asparagus, leafy greens, meat, and avocado
  • eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, for example, wild caught salmon
  • eat probiotic-rich foods like kefir, yogurt, and other fermented foods.

Of course, first and foremost, follow the medical advice of your doctor. Discuss diet, lifestyle, and medication changes, and keep track of your symptoms to see whether they improve.

9 Foods That Help or Hurt Anxiety

Looking for food that helps with anxiety? Studies have shown that some foods make us feel calmer while other foods can act as stimulants — at least temporarily. If you experience stress that results in anxiety or panic attacks, making some modifications to your diet may give anxiety help and relief.

Stress describes the many demands and pressures that all of us experience each day. Stress may be physical, mental, emotional, or chemical in nature. Just about anything you encounter can cause stress.

Anxiety is a sign or symptom of stress. Quite often it is the persistent interruptions, hassles, and struggles you face each day that cause anxiety, not life’s catastrophes or disasters. For instance, listening to a phone ringing constantly, hearing a new baby’s cries, or worrying about paying bills can cause stress that leads to anxiety.

When you are anxious for days or weeks, it is called chronic anxiety. The problem with chronic anxiety is that it can lead to health problems over the long term. While there are no quick fixes, you can combat the destructive effects by eating to boost or reduce certain chemicals in your body.

According to the Mayo Clinic, your diet cannot cure anxiety. But there are foods that help with anxiety and have a calming effect in the body, while other foods cause anxiety after eating.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Choose foods such as complex carbs that boost the calming brain chemical serotonin. Select whole-grain breads and whole grain cereals instead of sugary snacks or beverages.
  • Eat protein at breakfast, so you have energy and your blood glucose levels stay steady.
  • Limit or avoid alcohol and caffeine, which cause anxiety after eating. Both affect your sleep and can cause edginess.
  • Stay hydrated. Dehydration can cause mood changes.

To boost your mood, consider adding the following to your diet:

  • Chocolate
  • Folate and other B vitamins
  • Low-glycemic foods
  • Magnesium
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Tryptophan

In addition, consider adding foods high in zinc to your diet. Findings show that oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks have been linked to lowered anxiety.

Also, a study published in August 2015 the journal Psychiatry Research found a link between probiotic foods and a lowering of social anxiety. Probiotic foods include pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir. A new study published in 2017 in the journal Annals of General Psychiatry linked probiotics with improving symptoms of major depressive disorder, possibly by either decreasing inflammation in the body or by increasing the availability of serotonin, the calming brain chemical. Anxiety may be linked to depression.

Check out the following five foods you may want to add to your diet to boost your mood, and four foods you may want to avoid because they can increase stress and even possibly cause a depressed mood.

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Eggs contain choline, a nutrient that’s needed for the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that impacts the portions of the brain responsible for regulating mood and reducing stress. In one study, people with the highest anxiety levels also had the lowest blood levels of choline. Eggs also contain vitamin D, which helps ease both anxiety and depression. Other good sources of choline are turkey, beef, seaweed, soy and Swiss cheese. Try this: Mash peeled boiled eggs with avocado and minced red onion for a healthier egg salad; top a salad of grilled escarole, onions and olives with a soft-poached egg; layer fried eggs, sautéed kale and salsa on a warm corn tortilla.

Kidney beans are high in tryptophan, an amino acid that increases serotonin and has a calming effect. Several studies have linked low dietary tryptophan with increased anxiety and stress, and consuming more dietary tryptophan has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. And kidney beans are rich in protein, also important for neurotransmitter production. Poultry, eggs, cheese and pumpkin seeds are also good sources of tryptophan. Try this: Purée kidney beans with chopped onion, minced garlic, olive oil and cumin for an easy dip or spread; simmer kidney beans, yellow onions and tomatoes in coconut milk spiced with turmeric and cayenne for a traditional African dish.

Sweet potatoes are rich in fiber and complex carbs, which help keep blood sugar levels steady to balance mood. Studies show high-glycemic foods like white bread, pasta, cookies and cakes are associated with increased risk of anxiety. Other high-fiber, low-glycemic carbs include beans, winter squash, artichokes, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, raspberries and blackberries. Try this: Cut sweet potatoes into strips, toss with olive oil and paprika, and roast until tender for healthier fries; simmer sweet potatoes, carrots and ginger in broth until tender, then purée with coconut milk and yellow curry.

Brown rice contains a variety of B vitamins, crucial for the production of dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters that regulate mood. Thiamine (vitamin B1), has been shown to reduce anxiety and related symptoms, including headache, insomnia and nightmares, and in one study, adults who took a B-vitamin complex had fewer symptoms of anxiety and an overall improvement in mood. Other good sources of B vitamins: nutritional yeast, split peas, barley, oats, nuts and seeds. Try this: Stir-fry cooked rice with diced carrots, green peas, scallions, eggs and tamari for easy fried rice; sauté cooked rice in butter with thinly sliced mushrooms, onions and almonds; mix
cooked brown rice with mashed avocado, spread on a sheet of nori, layer with radish sprouts and shredded carrots then roll up.

Chard is high in magnesium, which modulates the release of stress hormones like cortisol and can reduce anxiety. Low levels of dietary magnesium have been
linked with increased anxiety, and a magnesium deficiency adversely affects probiotic balance in the gut and exacerbates symptoms of anxiety. Seaweed, pumpkin, peanuts, nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, avocado and spinach are also high in magnesium. Try this: Sauté chopped chard with white beans, garlic and red pepper flakes; purée chard leaves with basil, garlic, olive oil and shredded asiago cheese for a nutrient-dense pesto.

Herbal tea. Chamomile contains chemicals that reduce stress; in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, people who took chamomile for eight weeks had a significant decrease in anxiety. Lemon balm and skullcap work with GABA, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in calming anxiety. And in one study, passionflower was as effective at relieving anxiety as oxazepam, a pharmaceutical drug that helps treat anxiety and insomnia. Plus, herbal teas are a good substitute for caffeinated beverages, which can worsen anxious feelings and may even induce panic attacks. Try this: Mix cooled chamomile tea with orange juice and fresh thyme sprigs, and serve over ice; combine dried passionflower with dried hops, hibiscus and lavender then steep in hot water, strain and serve with raw honey.

Cashews are high in zinc, which is associated with the regulation of GABA and has an anti-anxiety effect. Zinc deficiency is common in several psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression, and studies show people with anxiety have lower levels of zinc. Other foods high in zinc: pumpkin seeds, adzuki beans, nuts, beef and chicken. Try this: Purée cashew butter with garlic powder, onion powder, dried dill and a splash of apple cider vinegar for a dairy-free ranch dressing; roast cashews, cauliflower, tomatoes, onions and green peppers until tender, then toss with cooked penne pasta and shredded Asiago cheese.

“It’s one part of the whole package that helps alleviate my depression and helps me to feel better,” he said.

Research on the impact of diet on mental functioning is relatively new, and food studies can be difficult to perform and hard to interpret, since so many factors go into what we eat and our general well-being. But a study of more than 12,000 Australians published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2016 found that individuals who increased the number of servings of fruits and vegetables that they ate reported that they were happier and more satisfied with their life than those whose diets remained the same.

Another study of 422 young adults from New Zealand and the United States showed higher levels of mental health and well-being for those who ate more fresh fruits and vegetables. Interestingly, the same benefits did not accrue to those who ate canned fruits and vegetables. “We think this is due to the higher nutrient content of raw fruits and vegetables, particularly B vitamins and vitamin C, which are vulnerable to heat degradation,” said Tamlin Conner, a study author and senior lecturer at the University of Otago.

One of the first randomized controlled trials to test whether dietary change may be effective in helping to treat depression was published in 2017. In the study, led by Felice Jacka, a psychiatric epidemiologist in Australia, participants who were coached to follow a Mediterranean diet for 12 weeks reported improvements in mood and lower anxiety levels. Those who received general coaching showed no such benefits.

A Mediterranean diet, rich in whole grains, legumes and seafood as well as nutrient-dense leafy vegetables that are high in the fiber, promotes a diverse population of helpful bacteria in the gut. Research suggests that a healthy gut microbiome may be important in the processing of neurotransmitters like serotonin that regulate mood.

“Our imaging studies show that the brains of people who follow a Mediterranean-style diet typically look younger, have larger volumes and are more metabolically active than people who eat a more typical Western diet,” said Dr. Lisa Mosconi, the director of the Women’s Brain Initiative at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. Such brain benefits may be protective against the onset of dementia, she said.

Dr. Mosconi noted that “there is no one diet that fits all” but advises patients to cut out processed foods, minimize meat and dairy and eat more whole foods like fatty fish, vegetables and whole grains and legumes to cut the risk of developing degenerative brain diseases associated with aging.

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