Many of us turn to food for ways to help decrease anxiety (hello, avocado and fatty fish!). But did you know that the opposite is also true? Certain foods and ingredients can increase or heighten anxiety levels, whether or not you have an anxiety disorder. Here are 10 common items that you may want to avoid to reduce anxiety. You may even be surprised by some of them!
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Tofu and soy
As more people adopt vegetarian and vegan diets, soy-based dairy alternatives and lean protein substitutes are being incorporated into their dishes. Soy is high in copper, which is linked to anxiety, plus it has high levels of phytoestrogen that can cause hormone imbalances, resulting in mood swings and increased anxiety levels. Tofu contains both trypsin inhibitors and protease inhibitors, enzymes that make this protein difficult to process, as well as lectins that cause digestive upset. Tempeh and miso are easier to digest than tofu, so choose those instead.
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Adding fibre to your diet is important, but avoid wheat bran whenever you can. It contains a high concentration of phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that stores phosphorus in plants. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, it limits the absorption of minerals like iron, zinc and calcium. Zinc deficiencies are connected to anxiety, so consider eliminating wheat bran from your diet. Phytic acid is also found in oats, dried beans and legumes, and rice, but soaking them before cooking reduces it.
While you may not be able to imagine a day that doesn’t start with a cup of coffee or tea, reconsider caffeine if you’re anxious. Caffeine causes increases in adrenaline and body temperature, heart palpitations, insomnia and irritability, as outlined in this article by pharmacist David A. Pham. It can also release the hormone cortisol, causing a spike in blood pressure and heart rate. With caffeine in an energy drink, you could even experience heart arrhythmia. For those with social anxiety, even a small amount of caffeine can lead to side effects.
Many fruit juices eliminate fibre, the healthiest part of whole fruits, and leave behind all the sugar. A large number of store-bought fruit juices contain up to 90 per cent sugar, which causes a spike in blood sugar, even resulting in shaking or jitters. Fruit juice has been connected to poor mental health, and apple, pear and grape juices may also have low levels of arsenic, which induces anxious behaviour.
Kimchi and fermented foods are great for gut health, but they can also be harmful to your mental health. The issue lies in the way proteins are broken down during the fermentation process. It creates an unwelcome byproduct: histamine. If you are sensitive to histamine, an excess of the chemical can feel a lot like an anxiety attack. High levels of histamine may also cause inflammation in the brain, which can cause anxiety.
After a long, stressful day, your first instinct may be to unwind with a cocktail or a glass of wine. But you may want to rethink that decision. Alcohol consumption can lead to several issues that impact anxiety levels, starting with a loss of sleep, dehydration, and fluctuations between high and low blood sugar. It affects serotonin levels in your brain, which is the main hormone that stabilizes moods and emotions, and once the alcohol wears off, you may feel more anxious than before that drink. The link between anxiety and alcohol doesn’t stop there. People with anxiety disorders who self-medicate with alcohol are more likely to develop a dependency.
Your brain doesn’t function at its best when blood glucose levels are elevated, which means the connection between sugar and anxiety is very real. While sugar is everywhere and you may not be able to avoid it completely, there are ways to reduce your intake. Watch out for the added sugar in low-calorie options like salad dressings and peanut butter. Avoid sodas that are high in sugar and have no nutritional value. Skip the refined sugars in starchy foods like white bread, pasta and rice that cause blood sugar to spike and then crash. If you have a carb craving, whole grain products are always the best choice. This article from Harvard Medical School outlines the links between diet and anxiety, especially the effects of sugar.
Processed and fried foods
While processed and fried foods are delicious, there’s a long list of reasons anyone prone to anxiety should limit or omit them altogether. Fried foods contain partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats that are linked to anxiety and depression. A diet high in fried foods can lead to clogged arteries, which decreases blood flow to the brain. Processed meats like hot dogs, bacon and cold cuts are high in sodium and sugar, which lead to inflammation, affecting the parts of your brain that control anxiety and motivation, as indicated in this article from UChicago Medicine. Canned soups, stews and other convenience foods not only include additives, preservatives and dyes, the packaging may contain Bisphenol A — also known as BPA — a chemical linked to anxiety that affects the neurotransmitters in the part of your brain that controls stress. On top of it all, fried and processed foods can cause acid reflux and gas, which also increases anxiety levels.
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The health benefits of antioxidant-rich dark chocolate are widely known, especially its effect on heart and brain health, but it’s important to remember that chocolate contains both sugar and caffeine. Dark chocolate also includes theobromine, an alkaloid found in the cacao plant, which can trigger anxiety, restlessness and even rage. When selecting chocolate, opt for one that is 70 per cent cacao or higher. Pair it with a healthy fat and a protein to balance out the potentially negative repercussions.
Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes
If you’re reducing your sugar intake, think twice about reaching for artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, saccharin and other sugar substitutes. Besides increasing anxiety levels, they can lead to headaches, insomnia, fatigue, mood swings, lack of focus and even heart palpitations. In studies from Universiti Sains Malaysia School of Medical Science and the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, aspartame has been shown to block the production of serotonin, the brain’s “feel-good” chemical. Plus, artificial sweeteners can cause the same spikes and crashes commonly associated with sugar.
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