If you’ve ever found yourself scraping the bottom of a tub of ice cream after a bad day, you already know that your emotions can influence what you eat. But what you may not realize is that what you eat can dramatically alter your mental health.
Simple food choices can make the difference between feeling worse and feeling more stable, says research from a February 2015 study by Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Eighteen percent of the population suffers some form of anxiety disorder, and 6.7 percent of the American population over the age of 18 have been diagnosed with clinical depression.
You don’t have to be officially diagnosed (many people aren’t, anyway) to know what an overwhelming burden it can be when you are even marginally anxious or depressed. And while the two aren’t necessarily inclusive of each other, we’ve chosen to focus on them together since we can all relate to how both conditions weigh us down.
The good news is that while there are plenty of potential causes for either situation, the foods we consume can play a major role in increasing the frequency, depth, and duration of bouts of depression or anxiety, especially if we’re already predisposed to experiencing them. Your best move is to familiarize yourself with some of the foods that have been repeatedly linked with doing more damage to your psyche—and then drastically reduce your consumption of them. Get some guidance below and then be sure to see the 23 Foods That Happy People Eat!
Steer clear of these foods and ingredients that can unfortunately speed up your downward spiral.
We sorta despise sugar at Eat This, Not That! for a variety of reasons; its strong association with depression is just one. A 2015 study of postmenopausal women demonstrated that an increase in added sugars in their diet was associated with an increased likelihood of depression. In the past, scientists weren’t sure why depression, diabetes, and dementia seemed to cluster in epidemiological studies or why having one of these health issues increases your risk for the others. But in a study published the journal Diabetologia, researchers have found that when blood glucose levels are elevated, levels of a protein that encourages the growth of neurons and synapses drops. Translation: The simple act of eating sugar makes your brain work at a suboptimal level—and the more you do it, the greater your risk of depression and the greater your risk of diabetes and dementia, too. Find out 30 Easy Ways to Stop Eating So Much Sugar.
Don’t think that just because sugar is out that artificial sweeteners will enable you can humor your sweet tooth without elevating your risk of depression. Aspartame, the common (and dangerous) ingredient that’s found in products like diet soda, blocks the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This can cause all manner of neuro maladies including headaches, insomnia, changes in mood—and yes, depression. But it’s not just aspartame: NutraSweet or Equal may also be bad for your mental well-being.
Your central nervous system is important, to put it lightly. It’s responsible for taking in information through the five senses, thinking, understanding, reasoning, and controlling motor function. You’ll note that all of these things are in scant supply as the night wears on at your local watering hole. That’s because alcohol is a depressant, and more specifically, depresses the working order of the central nervous system. Oh, and the central nervous system controls how we process emotions, too. Bottom line: Booze is a little too efficient at exacerbating symptoms associated with depression. If you pull back on swigging ’em back, you may be amazed by the benefits of not drinking.
Fried chicken, fried cheese sticks, fried calamari, French fries. You won’t ever see these items marked as an “Eat This.” They cause trouble for your body for a variety of reasons and can wreak havoc on your weight. But there’s more: They’re also linked to depression. See, deep frying is usually done in partially hydrogenated oil. Hydrogenation is a process that turns vegetable oil into a more solid form, which makes it a more shelf-stable product. Anything that is cooked with hydrogenated oils and contains trans fats could potentially contribute to depression. Saturated fats, like the ones found in deli meats, high-fat dairy, and butter can clog arteries and prevent blood flow to the brain—and optimal brain function is what you want, if you’re trying to stave off the blues.
Cheap and easy? In the short term, kinda sorta. But once you factor in the changes it can make to your physical and mental well being, the true price of that cheap stuff gets steep real fast. According to a 2012 study in the journal Public Health Nutrition, people who eat fast food are 51 percent more likely to develop depression than those who don’t. To clarify: When we say fast food, we’re talking about hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, and commercial baked goods. Eating a small portion of any one food is unlikely to raise depression risk, but if you see Ronald, Wendy, The Colonel or Popeye on a regular basis, a drastic dietary adjustment would be a great step toward happier feelings and less depression. Check out the 25 Things Fast Food Chains Don’t Want You to Know.
Trans fat is the name given to unsaturated fats that don’t usually occur in whole foods. Only in the 1950s did trans fats become commonly used in things like margarine, snack food, packaged baked goods, and oils used to fry fast food. Consuming artery-clogging trans fats can increase your risk of depression by as much as 48 percent, according to a study published in PLOS ONE. Conversely, plenty of studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet, which traditionally utilizes olive oil rather than trans fats, can lower the risk of numerous health conditions, including depression.
For decades, fat-free foods have been touted as being a weight loss solution—but many of these products contain mini mountains of sodium. Experts say that all that extra salt can totally futz with your emotions because the extra sodium in these products can disrupt aspects of your neurological system. Not only can this directly contribute to depression, but it can also monkey with your immune system response and cause fatigue. An over-taxed body is a way to invite disruption to your emotional state. And, of course, an excess of salt also leads to fluid retention and bloating. Like many of the foods on this list, salt can contribute to weight gain, resulting in a negative body image and snowballing depression even further.
There are plenty of experts who will tell you that even a modest amount of caffeine can contribute to depression—and at least one study has found that, among healthy college students, moderate and high coffee drinkers scored higher on a depression scale than others. The reason most experts cite is caffeine’s disruptive effect on sleep. Coffee and black tea make it more difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep. Sleep is connected to mood and disturbed sleep can seriously mess with your mental state. The one drink to avoid at all costs if you plan on going to bed any time in the next 24 hours? Energy drinks. Some types have the caffeine equivalent of 14 cans of soda.
Avoid these anxiety trigger foods and nourish away the nerves, one meal at a time.
Touted by health experts and foodies for its impressive fiber content and complex, nutty flavor, wheat bran gets a black mark in the anti-anxiety department for its notoriously high concentration of phytic acid. This anti-nutrient binds to important mood minerals like zinc and limits their absorption. Adequate levels of zinc are especially important for anxious people, as deficiencies are common and have shown to induce anxious behavior and depression. Soaking and cooking can help reduce the anti-nutrient which is found primarily in whole grains and dried beans; so make the extra step a staple of your kitchen when preparing rice, oatmeal, soups and stews.
Soy is like that date who demands affection while refusing PDA and cuddling. Even though soy is packed with lean protein, it’s also packed with trypsin and protease inhibitors — enzymes that make the digestion of protein incredibly difficult. Soy is also high in copper, a mineral linked to anxious behavior, and loaded with oligosaccharides, which are known to cause flatulence. (Terrific for social anxiety…Just kidding.) Toss the fart-y processed tofu and veggie burgers, and if you must eat soy, stick to fermented varieties like tempeh and miso, which are easier to digest.
That’ll be a grande latte and a venti panic attack? Coffee is like jet fuel for an anxious brain. It’s one of the highest concentrated dietary sources of caffeine, and research shows that people with social anxiety are particularly sensitive to feeling nervous side effects from just small amounts of the stimulant. Caffeine can also blunt the absorption of key mood-balancing nutrients like vitamin D and the B vitamins. When weaning off the jumpy stuff, naturally decaffeinated herbals teas, especially chamomile, can be a great alternative to coffee and may also provide meaningful antianxiety and antidepressant activity, research suggests.
Gluten is the sticking point for many anxious people, especially patients with celiac disease—among whom anxiety traits are common, and can disappear when gluten is removed. But even folks with milder allergies can find the glue-like starch triggering. People with non-celiac gluten sensitivities experienced a significant increase in feelings of depression and anxiety after just three days on a “gluten challenge” that involved ingesting the equivalent of three slices of whole-wheat bread, one recent study found. Need one more reason to weed out the wheat? Most non-organic wheat is treated with glyphosate, an herbicide shown to cause nutrient deficiencies, especially in mood-stabilizing minerals.
If grandma wouldn’t recognize it, cook with it, or enjoy eating it, get rid of it. That’s the basic nutrition advice from most anti-anxiety experts who recommend a traditional, whole foods diet. “I have my clients avoid processed foods at all costs,” explains certified nutritionist Trudy Scott, author of The Antianxiety Food Solution. “The foods you choose shouldn’t have labels; and if they do, they shouldn’t read like a chemistry experiment,” she adds. Even the packaging of “convenience” foods may be a cause for—and cause of—concern. Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in most canned food liners and plastic containers, can throw off important mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters by significantly altering genes in the stress-mediating portion of the brain, research shows. A previous study found children exposed to BPA in early childhood were more likely to have anxiety issues, according to researchers at the University of California–Berkeley.
Things may have gone a little differently for Snow White had she been tricked by a witch with a glass of apple juice. She’d probably still pass out—but not before running around the house in a nervous panic. That’s because, unlike whole fruits, juices are devoid of slow-digesting fiber and loaded with refined fructose. The result is a blood sugar spike that triggers a rush of the stress hormone adrenaline, with symptoms that look a lot like a panic attack. In fact, a recent study showed fructose can alter how the brain responds to stress on a genetic level. What’s more, many apple juice brands have tested positive for arsenic — a toxin shown to induce anxious behavior and worsen depression. As a general rule, avoid all sweetened beverages. If water is boring to you, then try one of these detox waters instead!
Wine-ing down may only wind you up. While a glass of vino or beer may temporarily help to calm an anxious mind, research suggests the happy hour strategy may backfire long-term. People with anxiety disorders who self-medicate with alcohol or drugs were up to five times more likely to develop a dependency problem within three years than a group who skipped on self-medicating, according to a recent study. Even in the short-term, a few drinks can cause sleep problems, blood sugar swings and dehydration—all things you want to avoid if you’re anxious. If you feel you “need” to drink, consider swapping your night-cap for a glutamine capsule. The amino acid has shown to reduce alcohol cravings and may be helpful while detoxing from it.