Justin Robinson by Justin Robinson

For many people, stress levels are at an all-time high. Although we can’t completely remove the sources of stress from our lives, we can find tools and techniques that can help us better manage the stress. Improving sleep habits, increasing physical activity, practicing mindfulness and unplugging from the news or social media can definitely go a long way toward reducing stress. And, as this article explains, modifying your eating habits can also go a long way toward helping you manage your stress levels.

First, it’s important to state that no foods cause or prevent anxiety. Research can generally tell us more about associations rather than causes; in other words, it can tell us that eating or avoiding certain foods may be more or less associated with experiencing anxiety.

Additionally, the foods you regularly consume are more likely to impact anxiety levels than any single meal. Consistent, positive nutrition choices, such as limiting junk foods, consuming sufficient vitamin D and foods rich in omega-3s, eating a diverse diet, cooking your own food and practicing mindfulness while eating, may significantly improve anxiety levels and overall mood. Thus, one “mood-enhancing smoothie” will probably do very little to reduce actual anxiety.

Let’s take a look at different types of food and eating habits and their effects on mood and stress levels.

Comfort Foods

Ice cream, potato chips, mac’n’cheese, fried chicken—these foods are often associated with offering comfort during moments of stress or anxiety. But do these foods actually improve mood? Research has revealed interesting relationships among type of dietary fat intake, fitness level, body mass index (BMI) and anxiety. People who consume greater amounts of healthy fats and exercise more tend to have lower amounts of anxiety. Further, BMI is positively associated with anxiety, meaning that heavier individuals typically exhibit greater amounts of anxiety.

Therefore, eating foods high in unhealthy (pro-inflammatory) fats and/or calorically dense foods that lead to weight gain is correlated with anxiety. Conversely, eating healthy fats and exercising regularly are associated with improved mood and resiliency.

Goal: Follow the 80/20 rule. Eat healthy foods (particularly healthy fats) 80% of the time and indulge in less-healthy fare no more than 20% of the time. Lump all “comfort” foods such as desserts, junk food, fried foods and alcohol into the 20%.

Brain Foods

While omega-3 fats, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, magnesium and probiotics have been associated with better mood and lower anxiety, it is unrealistic to expect any particular food or food group to work miracles. Foods high in these nutrients may increase serotonin levels directly or assist with the production of serotonin, a chemical that contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness, and improves the quality of sleep.

Goal: Regularly consume foods high in omega-3 fats and vitamin D, and the other important micronutrients will fall into place. Specifically, eat at least two servings of fish per week or take a high-quality fish oil supplement (discuss all supplementation with a Registered Dietitian). Also consume foods high in vitamin D (fish, egg yolks, dairy, and mushrooms) and get at least 10 minutes of daily sun exposure.

Gut Foods

The gut microbiome, and the related gut-brain axis, may play a large role in the development of anxiety and depression. The gut microbiome is composed of bacteria, viruses and fungi living in the intestines and has been linked to inflammation, hunger and satiety, blood sugar regulation, allergies, mental health and other metabolic conditions. Inflammation or poor gut health is referred to as dysbiosis and has been linked to several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression. Foods that contain artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners as well as lack of dietary fiber contribute to gut dysbiosis. Natural, whole foods rich in fiber can improve gut health. Research suggests that the more diverse the diet, the more diverse the microbiome and the more adaptable it will be to distress.

Probiotics may also contribute to restoring gut microbiome function and, therefore, have a potential role in the treatment and prevention of anxiety. A recent study concluded that probiotics taken with physician-prescribed medication were more effective in decreasing anxiety symptoms than medication alone. Further research is needed before concluding that everyone (or everyone with anxiety) should take probiotic supplements. However, it is reasonable to regularly consume foods containing natural probiotics, such as yogurt, kefer, tempeh, kombucha, miso, kimchi and sauerkraut.

Goal: Eat a diverse diet that regularly includes fermented foods. Avoid artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners.

Meal Preparation

Food is as much about connection as it is about nourishment. Americans consume nearly half of their meals alone and roughly half outside of the home. This leaves a very small overlap of meals eaten with friends and family at home. Cooking and eating with others whose company you enjoy provides common ground for positive, enriching discussion, which in itself can improve mood and ease anxiety.

Goal: Strive to find additional meaning and purpose with meals. Dine out or take out fewer than three meals per week.

Focus on Your Food

Consider how much people rush and multitask through the day. This includes mealtime, during which everyone seems to watch TV, check e-mail or skim social media streams. Unplug to improve your connection with food and enhance mood. Talk about the day with family members—share what you learned, moments of gratitude and kind gestures you gave or received.

Goal: Sit down at a dining table for at least one meal per day and unplug from all technology (with the exception of background music, if desired). Focus on nothing more than eating and connecting with others during meals.

It can be difficult to remember in the moment, but consistent and long-term healthy eating habits reduce anxiety more than any single food, drink or supplement. Additionally, connecting with food and with other people encourages a positive relationship with food and meal times. Thus, for optimal mental health, prioritize consuming healthy, diverse foods and find comfort in connecting with food and others.

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