Can a Healthy Diet Reduce Anxiety Disorder?

Super foods may help you beat anxiety.
Eat healthy foods to combat anxiety. Lew Robertson / Getty Images

Can eating a healthy diet help relieve symptoms of anxiety? Experts suggest that diet can directly affect mental well-being, including anxiety, stress, and mood. Certain foods can contribute to feelings of anxiety, while other substances can affect the brain and body in various ways.

For example, research has found that people who eat diets high in processed, high-fat, and high-sugar foods are more likely to have anxiety than people who follow diets richer in complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables.

Healthy eating habits can mean the difference between a day filled with jitters and a day of calm and peace. Below are tips for healthy eating to help people with anxiety to improve overall wellness and reduce feelings of anxiety.

Eat Small, Regular Meals

When you skip meals, your blood sugar levels drop and you may feel irritable, jittery, and have worsened anxiety. Aim to eat five to six smaller meals and snacks throughout the day to keep your blood sugar levels from plummeting.

Eat Whole Grains and Complex Carbohydrates

Replace processed grains (such as white bread and pasta) and simple carbohydrates (such as fruit juices) with complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Foods that contain complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, beans, broccoli, and cabbage take more time for the body to process than simple carbohydrates like sugar, and will lead to fewer ups and downs in serotonin levels in the brain, and may help you feel calmer.

Avoid Refined Sugar

Refined sugar, found in sweets, soda pop, and other foods, can affect your body's metabolism and deplete certain vitamins and minerals. Stay away from obvious sugar sources as well as hidden sugar in packaged and canned foods.

Limit Caffeine

Caffeine can cause an effect similar to the stress response involved in anxiety, so it's best when avoided. Caffeine can be found in coffee, tea, soda pop, chocolate, and some medications.

Try alternatives such as herbal tea instead of coffee. Although it may be hard to give up caffeine at first, in the long run, you'll feel better.

Limit Acohol

Research has found that alcohol use disorders are more common in people who have mental health conditions, including different types of anxiety disorders. This may be because people with anxiety consume alcohol as a way to relieve or cope with feelings of anxiety.

Alcohol can aggravate feelings of depression (which often coincide with anxiety) and is best avoided or limited.

Take a Multi-Vitamin

Ensure that you receive adequate daily vitamins and minerals by supplementing your diet with a multi-vitamin. Magnesium is a particularly important mineral and can also be found in foods such as nuts (e.g., almonds and cashews), soybeans, and spinach.

Limit Artificial Sweeteners

While more research is needed, some studies have indicated that the aspartame used in many artificial sweeteners may play a part in inhibiting the synthesis and release of neurotransmitters. This may then contribute to anxiety and other mood problems.

Although it might be tempting to use artificial sweeteners in place of refined sugars, be sure that consumption of these products is not aggravating your anxiety. If you feel particularly anxious after consuming an artificial sweetener, it might be wise to avoid that product.

Drink Water

Stay hydrated by drinking water throughout the day. Dehydration can lead to lower energy levels which can worsen anxiety. A 2018 study found that drinking plain water was associated with a decreased risk of anxiety and depression in adults. 

Include Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids, often found in fish and other seafood, play an important role in physical and mental health. They help reduce inflammation and improve heart health, and some evidence indicates that they play an important role in mood regulation.

In one study, researchers found that taking omega-3 supplements for 12 weeks was associated with a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms.

You can increase your consumption of omega-3 fatty acids by eating nuts, seeds, and cold-water fish.

Incorporate Foods That Might Combat Anxiety

Some foods may help improve brain function, positively impacting anxiety, mood, and stress levels. This can include:

Tumeric

This spice contains antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties that make it good for brain health. Research has also explored whether curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, might help prevent anxiety disorders.

Yogurt

The probiotics in yogurt may have several health benefits, including improving gut health. Researchers are continuing to explore the connection between gut health and brain health. Some evidence suggests that consuming probiotic yogurt regularly can help people cope better with stress.

Dark Chocolate

Researchers have explored whether antioxidant compounds found in dark chocolate might produce brain-protective effects by increasing blood flow to the brain. One study found that people who ate dark chocolate twice a day for two weeks had lower anxiety levels.

In addition to the above tips, remember to introduce any changes to your diet in a gradual fashion; otherwise, you might find that you quickly return to your old habits. Also, be sure to avoid any allergens or foods that seem to worsen your anxiety.

A Word From Verywell

Making changes such as those above will help you not only gain control of social anxiety but also improve your general health. Consult with your physician and/or a dietitian for specialized recommendations for you, and your particular situation.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are there any foods that cause anxiety?

    Alcohol, caffeine, added sugars, and refined carbohydrates can all contribute to increased anxiety levels. Alcohol can impact serotonin levels in the brain, while caffeine is a stimulant that can leave you feeling jittery and tense. Sugars and refined carbohydrates can affect blood sugar levels and gut health.

  • Does the keto diet help with anxiety?

    Keto diets may impact GABA levels in the brain, which could affect anxiety. A 2020 study found that low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets such as the keto diet may benefit some anxiety disorders. However, the authors of the study caution that more research is needed before such diets can be recommended.

  • How does sleep affect anxiety levels?

    People experiencing anxiety have a harder time falling and staying asleep at night. However, problems with sleep also appear to play a role in the onset, maintenance, and worsening of anxiety. This bidirectional relationship means that people with anxiety often have more sleep problems yet have a harder time addressing such issues.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."