At 45 years old, Matt had been overweight for nearly half his life. Tipping the scales at 300 lbs., the 5’11 father of two knew that his addiction to food was the source of his obesity – and his anxiety.
Born into an Italian-American family that celebrated food and made it a part of every occasion (“From getting your report card to Uncle Sam getting a new job to weddings,” says Matt), food became something that Matt could rely on as a source of comfort.
“If I’m angry, I eat. If I’m bored, I eat. If I’m happy, I eat,” says Matt. “There are some people, like my wife, who can’t eat when she’s upset or nervous. And then there are people like me who have to eat when they’re nervous.
“Eating calms my nerves and makes me feel safer, in the moment. But then when I can’t zip up my pants anymore or I think about getting on a scale to measure the damage, my anxiety gets worse. And it’s a big, ugly cycle.”
Many people actually relate to Matt – overeating has long been a mechanism to cope for scores of people who suffer with anxiety. In an article written by Dr. Jennifer Pells, a licensed clinical psychologist who works for a weight management treatment program in North Carolina, eating disorders often co-exist with anxiety disorders. People with binge eating disorder – those who eat substantial amounts of food in a short period of time with a loss of control over how much they are eating – have been reported to show more signs and symptoms of anxiety than those who don’t have a binge eating disorder. Emotions that trigger anxiety and then binge eating include sadness, happiness, exhaustion and anger.
“For me, I recognize that food brings me comfort,” admits Matt, who says that to combat his weight, he has tried online weight loss programs, purchased gym memberships, exercise equipment, and even locking kitchen cabinets. “What’s particularly difficult about loving food so much is that food is necessary for survival. It’s not like I’m hooked on gambling or (cigarettes) or something else. Food is like breathing – you need it.
“But that mentality – that I need food – is exactly what gets me in that terrible cycle. I can’t kick my anxiety until I get a hold on how and what I eat.”
Angela, a 30-year-old retail manager and self-professed ‘gym rat,’ doesn’t have an eating disorder or weight loss concerns. Other than her generalized anxiety disorder, she’s physically healthy and visibly fit.
“To keep my anxiety at bay, I feel like I do almost everything right – I work out, I see a therapist once a week, I journal.
“But I do notice that when I eat certain foods, like white rice, or when I have coffee or caffeinated tea… I can really spiral on those days.” It’s particularly difficult for Angela to avoid these foods, she says, having grown up with an Asian mother (who cooked white rice every day while Angela was growing up, a carb that Angela grew to depend on even as an adult) and a British father, from whom Angela learned to drink Earl Grey without fail, every day. In college, Angela learned to stay awake with copious amounts of coffee, a habit she continues to work on abolishing every day.
I have anxiety. Do I really have to pay attention to what I eat? Can’t I just take medication?
While medication may be necessary in more severe cases of anxiety disorders, taking care to eat the right foods in a well-balanced diet is a great way to keep those symptoms of anxiety at bay. Here are some things to note:
- Whether or not you suffer from anxiety, eating three well-balanced and healthy meals (which include fruits and vegetables, proteins like lean meats, as well as healthy fats) every day is vital for your physical and mental health and wellbeing.
- The following can bring on symptoms of anxiety: low blood sugar, alcohol and/or caffeine consumption, smoking and dehydration.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Avoid processed foods. Processed foods tend to have a lot of sugar, which can bring on or mimic signs of a panic or anxiety attack.
What foods bring on anxiety?
Alcohol. Alcohol is a sedative and a depressant. Because of this, many people turn to alcoholic beverages to relax, unwind and escape the stresses of daily living. Some with anxiety turn to it for the same reason, so that they can feel temporary relief from the disorder. However, relying on alcohol to escape often doesn’t turn out so well. Turns out that alcohol actually causes anxiety.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that in some cases, prolonged drinking can ring on anxiety disorders. Substance-induced anxiety, for example, can be caused by heavy drinking, occurring at the same time as another form of anxiety, like panic disorder of generalized anxiety disorder. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America adds that 20 percent of those who have social anxiety disorder also suffer from alcoholism.
The effects of alcohol may make you feel temporarily as if your anxiety symptoms have gone away. But the truth is that a few hours after consuming alcohol, your anxiety symptoms can actually increase significantly, even if you’d only had small or moderate amounts. Alcohol’s effects can last for the entire day, and even into the next. With excessive and prolonged drinking, your brain chemistry may actually be considerably affected, leaving you more prone to anxiety and its symptoms.
Studies have proven that there’s an undeniable connection between alcohol and anxiety. Alcohol’s pleasant effects are not only temporary, it is also highly addictive. Beyond feeling the near-immediate effects on your mood – the increase in your anxiety symptoms – withdrawal from alcohol is highly unpleasant. You may tremble, sweat, feel cold and nauseated, or your heart may race. All of these contribute to or mimic anxiety.
Caffeine. Did you know that throughout the globe, there is no drug more heavily used than caffeine? You may not think of it as a drug, what with all the coffeehouses, happy commercials and used Keurig cups in your recycling bin, but the fact is that is indeed one of the most powerful and addcitive stimulants in the world.
Many students, shift work employees and tired parents sing the praises of caffeine, thanks to its abilities to keep us alert, awake and ready to take anything on. But if you suffer with anxiety, coffee can actually increase your negative symptoms.
Anxiety causes our bodies to trigger the “fight or flight” response; caffeine does exactly the same. On caffeine, you may overreact, become irritable, frustrated or annoyed. You might feel as though you’re in trouble, or that your heart is racing or irregularly beating. You may feel as though everything is closing in on you. You may feel restless, sleepless, troubled, dizzy or moody. The thing is, anxiety’s symptoms and caffeine’s symptoms are often very similar.
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggest drinking no more than three to four cups of coffee a day, if you’re struggling with anxiety, it’s probably a good idea to decrease even this suggested amount. Try lowering the amount of coffee or caffeinated beverages per day to half of what you’re drinking now, to start. If you’re having a difficult time withdrawing, it’s a good idea to see a professional – you may have a caffeine dependency.
Simple carbs. First, a disclaimer: not all simple carbs (or carbohydrates) are “bad carbs.” When a nutritionist or health care professional suggests that you limit your simple carb intake, he or she is probably talking about foods that have been processed with added sugar. However, there are some natural foods where simple carbs appear, like in milk.
So what simple carbs then would be okay to eat? Try breads that are made with whole grains instead of white bread; fruits (especially those with edible skins, like pears and apples, which are high in fiber); and freshly squeezed juice instead of non-diet sodas.
Simple carbs, as mentioned, are loaded with sugar. Having too much sugar can result in a dreaded “sugar rush,” which is often a highway to anxiety attacks.
Gluten. In 2014, a group of Polish researchers conducted a study on a patient who seemed unable to respond to any traditional treatments for anxiety. When she was placed on a gluten-free diet, her symptoms seemed to dissipate successfully.
Gluten intolerance, also known as celiac disease, typically causes diarrhea, dyspepsia, indigestion and anemia. In more severe cases, celiac disease patients have also been reported to suffer epilepsy, depression, anxiety and brain atrophy.
The study’s positive results have caused more experts to consider if gluten does indeed contribute to anxiety and depression. As with anxiety, gluten intolerance can occur at any age. If you experience stomach issues or discomfort when eating foods that contain gluten, see your doctor to discuss the possibility of a gluten-free diet. It may not only help you physically, but may also help alleviate your symptoms of anxiety.
Processed foods. In our rapid society, it’s no surprise that many of us rely on drive-thru restaurants and quick, microwavable meals to get us through our days. Processed foods are convenient, accessible – and have gotten a bad rap.
Not all processed foods are bad for you, like fruits canned in their own juice. But there are certain foods to definitely avoid, like bacon (which is very high in sodium), granola bars (which are packed in sugar), fruit snacks (which are not to be a replacement for real fruits; these often contain cane sugar and corn syrup, two big weight gain culprits) and frozen dinners (which not only come with a side of potatoes and a dessert, but with loads of sugars, sodium and fat).
Wow. That’s a lot to avoid. So what can I eat?
Fortunately, there are several foods that have been known to decrease the symptoms of anxiety naturally. They include the following:
Chamomile and green tea. Chamomile tea and green tea have long been praised for their anti-anxiety properties. German chamomile specifically has been used for hundreds of years for therapeutic use, aiding people in feeling calmer and more relaxed. Chamomile tea helps you sleep, relieves you of symptoms of depression, and even helps with inflammation and certain skin conditions. Green tea is also an effective combatant to anxiety – it has L-theanine, which is an amino acid that reduces stress and calms the mind. An added plus to green tea? It’s also been said to help weight management and weight loss, if that’s something you’re looking for as well.
Dark chocolate. Did we really say chocolate? Yes! But not just any chocolate. Dark chocolate, with its high flavonoid content (flavonoids are reported to reduce cell death in the brain and have also been said to improve blood flow), and tryptophan (which the body uses to turn into serotonin, a mood enhancer in the brain), dark chocolate that’s 70% or more is a fantastic food for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Take note, however, that is still chocolate, which means it’s got sugars and fats. Try not to eat more than one to three grams a day.
Turmeric. This vivid yellow spice is popular in Eastern and Asian dishes, and has a long medical history, thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. While experts still haven’t pinned down whether inflammation brings on anxiety, or the other way around, it’s been proven that the two conditions make the other worse. So by consuming an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant like turmeric, symptoms of anxiety and depression actually decrease significantly – and naturally.
Complex carbs. Unlike the simple carbs we talked about earlier, complex carbs are a great group of foods you can eat to stay healthy, keeping those anxiety symptoms at bay. Complex carbs include oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potatoes and 100% whole wheat bread. Complex carbs are higher in fiber and take longer to digest than simple carbs.
Foods with vitamin B. If you’re deficient in vitamin B, you may be at bigger risk for certain disorders – like anxiety and depression. Eating foods rich in vitamin B will assist in alleviating the symptoms of those disorders, and if you’re already taking antidepressants, may find that they work even better when you’re increasing your vitamin B intake. Foods rich in vitamin B include red meat, chicken, fish, legumes, seeds and nuts, whole grains, eggs and dairy products, citrus fruits and avocados.
Probiotics. Research has shown that there’s actually a link between gastrointestinal disorders and anxiety – those who suffer from anxiety are likely the same who suffer from diarrhea, constipation, and bloating.
Probiotics, which are live, good bacteria that help fight off bad bacteria, appear in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut and sourdough bread. Probiotics have long been known to help gastrointestinal disorders, but are increasing in popularity for the management of mental disorders as well.
If you’re suffering from anxiety and want more guidance on foods to eat and foods to avoid, visit www.hopetherapyandwellness.com.