It's no secret that the food we eat affects our physical health. It might not be as commonly-known that there are also some close associations between our food choices and our mental health, especially when it comes to anxious and depressed feelings. In fact, what you eat can dramatically alter your mood. If you're not feeling like your best self, it's helpful to know what foods have been linked with an increase in anxiety and depression. Some of them, such as tomatoes, might come as a surprise, while others, like artificial sweeteners, are more well-known to cause issues.
Indulging in fast food might not seem like that big a deal. After all, it's cheap and convenient when you're on the go. However, the negative effects of fast food on your physical and mental well-being might not be worth the splurge.
In fact, research published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience in 2017 revealed a link between eating lots of fast food and an increase in "perceived mental distress." Fast food tends to be high in trans fats, saturated fats, and omega-6 fatty acids, which can cause an inflammatory response when consumed in large doses. Past research has linked inflammation to both anxiety and depression.
Different foods affect people in different ways, and that's certainly true for dairy. While some folks report having no adverse effects from consuming dairy products, others report an increase in anxiety, depression, or both of these within minutes.
The reason is most likely that 10 percent of adults are lactose intolerant, and even more than that have trouble digesting the casein found in cow's milk. Dairy can act as an inflammatory, which has been linked to both depression and anxiety.
Some people are under the impression that since sugar is "bad," artificial sweeteners are safer. That's not necessarily true; in fact, the artificial stuff can wreak havoc on our emotions.
Aspartame, the most common ingredient found in products like diet sodas, blocks the body's serotonin production. This can lead to all sorts of neurological ailments including insomnia, mood changes, and depression. Additionally, the dyes used in many sweeteners are neurotoxins that can disrupt nervous system function, leading to increased symptoms of anxiety.
Celebrated by nutritionists for its high fiber content and delicious flavor, wheat bran is commonly used in baked goods and sprinkled into other foods such as smoothies and granola. However, it isn't recommended for people who have anxiety issues. This is because wheat bran has a high concentration of phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that limits the absorption of certain mood minerals such as zinc.
Zinc deficiencies are known to cause anxiety and depression in some people. Taking the extra step of soaking and cooking foods that contain wheat bran can help reduce that anti-nutrient.
Although many of us turn to sugary treats during times of stress, that's one of the worst things someone who's prone to anxiety could eat. According to registered dietician Brigitte Zeitlin, "[s]ugar can exacerbate your feelings of anxiety because of the way our bodies respond to digesting them.
“[Sugary foods] cause your blood sugar to spike and then drop faster than they would after eating non-high-sugar-foods. This quick spike and drop causes you to feel uneasy and can even at times mimic a panic attack." If you're feeling anxious, try snacking on something non-sugary instead.
For good gut health, many people turn to fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, and kombucha. Those with anxiety issues might want to steer clear of fermented items, however.
During the fermentation and aging process, food proteins are broken down, and histamines are a byproduct of this breakdown. An excess of histamines can create a feeling similar to a panic attack, especially in people who have a sensitivity. In addition, high histamine levels also cause brain inflammation that can increase anxiety levels.
Anyone who's ever experienced the effects of too much coffee knows how unpleasant that can be. But there's plenty of research indicating that even modest amounts of caffeine can contribute to feelings of anxiety.
Caffeine is a stimulant, which can be bad news for someone with anxiety. Too much caffeine causes a "fight or flight" response, which worsens anxiety and can even cause a panic attack. Additionally, the disruptive effects of caffeine on sleep can negatively affect mood and mental states.
Plants in the nightshade family include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, goji berries, and peppers. Many of these are items commonly considered healthy but they can cause unpleasant effects in the nervous systems of sensitive people.
These plants produce natural pesticides called glycoalkaloids. They're intended to kill predators such as worms, but they're also toxic to human cells! They block the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which can result in overstimulation of the nervous system and feelings of anxiety. If you eat nightshades frequently, the glycoalkaloids can accumulate in the system, taking about five days to clear.
The central nervous system is responsible for some pretty important tasks: thinking, reasoning, understanding, and controlling motor function and emotions.
Alcohol, although it might make you feel good while you're imbibing in it, is a depressant. It actually inhibits your central nervous system from performing properly and can lead to feelings of depression after a bender. Additionally, alcohol lowers serotonin levels and causes sleep problems, blood sugar swings, and dehydration, which are all things you want to avoid if you're anxious.
Salt is essential in maintaining good health and a balanced diet, but too much of it isn't a good thing. The over-consumption of sodium can cause a slew of well-known health problems like weight gain, high blood pressure, and water retention.
Sodium has been found to disrupt the neurological system, causing anxiety, panic episodes, fatigue, and immune system damage. Additionally, too much salt can contribute to weight gain, which can lead to depression in some people. Steer clear of high-sodium foods when possible.
Many of us have heard about the health dangers of processed foods, meaning anything that's been frozen, canned, dried, baked, or pasteurized. You might not know that there's also a link between consuming processed foods and depression.
Maxine Barish-Wreden, an integrative medicine physician with Sutter Medical Foundation, explains the connection. "A lot of the processed foods we eat are highly addictive and stimulate the dopamine centers in our brain, which are associated with pleasure and reward," she said. In addition, processed foods cause inflammation, which has a negative effect on mood.
Many people swear by tofu, which is made from soy milk, because it's loaded with lean protein and helpful amino acids. Unfortunately, it's also packed with enzymes that make the digestion of that protein more difficult.
Additionally, soy tends to be high in copper, a mineral that has been linked to anxiety in many studies. According to Psychology Today, high levels of copper can cause "feelings of agitation, anxiety and panic, overstimulation, racing thoughts, restlessness, and insomnia." These are not desirable effects for someone already prone to anxiety.
By now, "trans fat" is a naughty word for many people. Trans fats are the artery-clogging unsaturated fats that are commonly used in foods like snack products, packaged baked goods, margarine, and the oils used to deep fry fast food.
Not only are these fats bad for physical health, but they're also negatively associated with mental health. A 2011 study published in PLOS ONE followed 12,000 people and found that there was a 48% increase in rates of depression in those with higher levels of trans fats in their blood. Per HealthLine, trans fats have also been linked to anxiety and other mental health issues
Although it's associated with some healthy-sounding foods like veggie stir fry and fish dishes, soy sauce contains a lot of gluten. For someone with gluten sensitivity, soy sauce and other gluten-rich items can spell trouble for the digestive system and overall health -- including mental health.
A 2012 study conducted at Oslo University Hospital discovered that a group of test subjects who began consuming gluten after six weeks of a gluten-free diet reported 90% more depression as a result, when compared to the control group that remained gluten-free. And Psychology Today reports that researchers have found a link between depression and gluten in patients.
The consumption of energy drinks has been on the rise over the past few years, which some experts think is problematic. These drinks can contain massive amounts of caffeine, and "high caffeine consumption has been shown to be significantly associated with anxiety and panic disorders," explains Georgina Trapp, Ph.D., who led a 2013 study on the subject.
She adds, “other ingredients such as guarana and ginseng have also been linked to anxiety, irritability, nervousness, restlessness, tremors, and mania.” Anyone prone to anxiety should skip those high-octane energy drinks.
An apple a day might keep the doctor away according to the old saying, but a glass of apple juice might not be so beneficial. That's because unlike whole fruits, juices are loaded with refined fructose and devoid of slow-digesting fiber.
The result is a blood sugar spike that triggers an unpleasant rush of the stress hormone adrenaline, causing a feeling very similar to a panic attack in many people. Frighteningly, some apple juice brands have also tested positive for arsenic, which is a toxin proven to cause anxious behavior and worsen depression. If possible, avoid any sweetened beverages and stick to water.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is an additive that's commonly used to enhance flavor and extend the shelf life of food products like soups, chips, frozen meals, and many more.
However, the consumption of MSG can irritate the nervous system. The additive has also been linked to anxiety, moodiness, "brain fog," and fatigue in some people. If you're using MSG to enhance flavor, you might be better off using small amounts of sea salt instead.
Foods In Certain Cans And Containers (Such As Soup)
While we're already aware of the dangers of eating too many processed foods, did you know that the packaging of some convenience foods adds extra risks?
The problem is Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in many plastic containers and canned food liners. Research has shown that BPA can affect important mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters by significantly altering genes in the stress-regulating part of the brain. And a study conducted at the University of California–Berkeley found that kids who were exposed to BPA in early childhood were more likely to have anxiety issues later in life.
White flour is a key ingredient in many of our favorite baked goods, but as with many tasty foods, it's not very good for you. Highly processed white flour rapidly turns to blood sugar after consumption.
That can lead to energy spikes and crashes that can be bad for both anxiety and depression. Eating white flour also increases cortisone and adrenaline levels, which can bring on anxious feelings. Whole grains are a better choice to keep your mood levels stable.
Light Salad Dressing
By now, many of us realize that pre-packed foods and condiments can be loaded with sugar, which is frequently listed as "high-fructose corn syrup." But it can be difficult to avoid prepared foods altogether, so it's tempting to turn to those salad dressings that are labeled "light" or "sugar free."
Alas, if something seems too good to be true, it frequently is. Salad dressing is yet another food that can contribute to anxiety in some people if it contains sugar or artificial sweeteners, which the "light" versions probably do. It's best to make your dressing at home from scratch if possible.
Even that ever-present red condiment many of us put on our french fries could cause issues for some anxiety-prone individuals. Like so many foods, ketchup contains high levels of sugar. And "light" or lower calorie ketchup uses artificial sweeteners.
We've already learned that sugar and artificial sweeteners can cause some pretty substantial disruptions in mood and mental well-being. It's just another reason to be sure and check ingredients when food shopping.