Daily Food Choices & Habits To Help Manage Anxiety
Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the United States, affecting 18% of the population or an estimated 40 million adults. In addition to seeking the help of a mental health professional, daily mindfulness and dietary changes can also help manage anxiety or reduce its symptoms.
To get a better understanding of what anxiety actually is, how to identify it, and food and lifestyle tips to help manage it, we spoke with licensed psychologist Dr. Rebecca Leslie, who works with patients to provide tools that will help them combat their anxiety.
Symptoms of anxiety
Acute anxiety is a helpful anxiety—it can motivate us and keep us safe. It's what gives us a healthy fear as we stand at the edge of a cliff or come in contact with a dangerous animal. However, when the threat is gone and that acute anxiety does not subside, or when the severity of the anxiety is out of balance with the severity of the threat, that's when it becomes a problem.
Dr. Leslie identifies anxiety as the “anticipation of future threat." She adds, "It can present differently for everyone, but typically it includes worried thoughts. It can impact your eating, sleeping, and how you feel physically.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the most common symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling restless, wound-up, or on edge
- Easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating or feeling like your mind is going blank
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
- Sleep disruptions, such as difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or having restless, unsatisfying sleep
While physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat or tense muscles may be the first signs of anxiety, Dr. Leslie notes that worrying tends to be the biggest indicator. “If you notice your thoughts are filled with more fear or worry, this could be a sign you are experiencing anxiety.” she says.
Foods that support lower anxiety
In addition to seeing a physician or seeking the help of a mental health professional, there are many practices that we can include in our daily lives that can also support reducing the risk of developing anxiety or the severity of symptoms.
“We need to have proper nourishment to set our bodies up for good physical and mental health,” says Dr. Leslie. She recommends that her patients eat mindfully to fuel their body.
Registered dietitians Brierley Horton and Carolyn Williams are co-hosts of The Happy Eating Podcast, a show focused on the connection between food and mental wellness, and both agree that whole foods rich in the following are essential to reducing anxiety through nutrition:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin D
Below, we highlight the best sources of these nutrients, as well as foods to limit if you're trying to reduce anxiety.
Magnesium sources in food
According to Williams, low magnesium levels are associated with an increased likelihood of both anxiety and depression. By increasing magnesium intake, she says, we can help ease the symptoms of anxiety.
Pumpkin seed kernels are one of the best natural sources of magnesium. With 74 mg in just one ounce, this super seed is a good source of plant-based protein, fiber, and healthy fat.
With 24 mg of magnesium per one raw cup, this low-calorie, nutrient dense leafy green is versatile enough to use in a sweet breakfast smoothie or a savory side dish.
“A one-ounce square of dark chocolate provides 15% of your daily recommendation for magnesium,” says Horton. The key is to choose dark chocolate that is a minimum 70% cacao.
Omega-3 fatty acid sources in food
Omega-3 fatty acids are a key component in the structure of every cell in our body. They have also been shown to have a strong influence on anxiety and depression. When considering omega-3s for mental health, it’s important to focus on two types: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). While both DHA and EPA are essential for brain health, research shows that increasing EPA results in reduced anxiety.
Salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and herring are some of the best whole foods to boost omega-3s, specifically EPA. According to Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, adults should get at least 220 mg of EPA daily, and this can be achieved by consuming two to three servings of fatty fish per week.
Crab, oysters, mussels, and clams are also good sources of EPA. In addition, they are rich in protein and provide a good source of iron, zinc, magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.
For vegetarians and vegans, these ocean-originating plants appear to be the best options for increasing EPA through whole foods. In addition to seaweed, look for other plant-based options like nori, spirulina, and chlorella.
Vitamin D sources in food
Vitamin D is a key component in promoting mental health. Research shows that in groups that received vitamin D supplementation, anxiety levels were significantly lower than in the control groups.
On top of being an excellent source of lean protein, eggs (particularly their yolks) provide a good source of vitamin D. You can boost that vitamin D content by consuming eggs that come from pasture-raised chickens. Eggs are also high in choline, which, Williams notes, “is a component of acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter involved in memory and mood; low choline levels are associated with higher anxiety levels.”
Mushrooms that have been exposed to light—either growing naturally outdoors or by being exposed to UV light—are one of the only plant-based sources of vitamin D.
Probiotic sources in food
Probiotics are good bacteria that aid in digestion and promote gut health. Additionally, research indicates a benefit to including probiotic-rich foods in the treatment protocol for individuals suffering from anxiety and depression.
“Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and miso are some of the best sources of probiotics,” shares Horton. “The combination of probiotics and vitamin D may be most helpful in reducing anxiety,” she adds, citing a study showing that those who were given a combination of probiotic and vitamin D supplements had significantly improved depression and anxiety scores after 12 weeks over a group who received a placebo.
Yogurt with live cultures is another way to include probiotics in your diet. “A plus of eating yogurt with live cultures is that the live bacteria produces lactic acid that inhibits the growth of bad bacteria in the gut," says Williams.
Antioxidant sources in food
Harvard Health Publishing recommends a diet high in antioxidants as a central component to any anti-anxiety diet. Antioxidant foods are anti-inflammatory foods, and studies indicate that inflammation may be one of the underlying causes of anxiety. Vegetables, fruit, nuts, spices, and green tea are key ingredients in an antioxidant-rich diet. Research suggests that balancing oxidative stress with a diet high in antioxidants may help to reduce anxiety and depression.
“Asparagus extract is actually an approved functional food used for anxiety in China because of its anti-anxiety effects,” says Williams. And while researchers aren't exactly clear on why it works, it could be due to the high folate content.
“Blueberries are one of the top food sources of the mineral manganese, providing 22% of your daily value per cup, according to the USDA, and getting enough manganese in your diet has shown to be important in managing anxiety and depression,” says Horton.
Nuts provide antioxidants, healthy fats, protein, and other key nutrients. For an anti-anxiety antioxidant, almonds are an excellent choice since they also provide 19% of the recommended daily value of magnesium in a single one-ounce serving.
Known for its powerful anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric is an antioxidant powerhouse. Curcumin is the principal component of turmeric and is being studied for its ability to synthesize omega-3s, specifically DHA, in the brain. This could be significant for vegetarians and vegans, as most dietary sources of omega-3s come from fatty fish and shellfish.
Curcumin is also being studied as a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While the study was performed in a lab and has not yet been replicated in humans, results showed a significant reduction in anxiolytic (anxiety) behavior. Researchers indicate that this may be due to curcumin’s impact on serotonin in the brain. When adding turmeric to recipes, also add a pinch of black pepper to boost absorption of curcumin.
Ginger is another powerful spice that is known for its medicinal properties. Like turmeric, ginger has been studied for its ability to influence serotonin levels, which may help reduce anxiety.
Drinking green tea is associated with a number of health benefits due to its high antioxidant content. Horton notes that it has also been linked to lower anxiety levels due to the combination of the compounds L-theanine and caffeine.
Foods to limit if you have anxiety
While some caffeine is OK, too much caffeine can lead to exacerbated anxiety symptoms. For example, eight ounces of black coffee contains 96 mg of caffeine, while eight ounces of green tea contains only 28 mg. “I tell people to start with small doses and see how they feel—is their anxiety worse or better? Then go from there,” says Horton.
High omega-6 foods
Vegetable oils, such as canola oil and corn oil, and refined carbohydrates, such as refined sugar and refined flour, are high in omega-6 fatty acids. While omega-6 fatty acids aren't necessarily bad, they can pose a problem when they are out of balance with omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6s increase inflammation in the brain, while omega-3s reduce it. When the balance between these fatty acids is disrupted, inflammation levels increase, which may also lead to a number of neurological issues, including increased instances of anxiety and depression.
When to supplement
If you are not a fan of fish or have a diet high in processed foods, supplementing can help ensure that you’re still receiving key nutrients. Williams and Horton both recommend supplementing vitamin D, magnesium, and omega-3s.
“We aren’t typically deficient in Vitamin D or magnesium, but most people aren’t getting adequate amounts,” says Williams. Horton adds, “Vitamin D is limited in foods, and magnesium is plentiful in the kind of foods we're not very good about eating, like whole grains and leafy greens!”
When it comes to omega-3 supplements, Williams suggests checking the ratio of DHA to EPA on the ingredients list: “Look for a 60 to 40 ratio of EPA to DHA,” she says.
Daily habits to reduce anxiety
In addition to making healthy nutrition choices, there are daily habits we can include to reduce anxiety. Dr. Leslie shares, “We have a toolbox of techniques and strategies to help with anxiety. Our job is to figure out which tools work best and gain confidence so that when you are feeling anxious, you have several tools you can choose from to help.”
Exercise has been studied for years as an intervention to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Recently, a large-scale study of almost 400,000 people over a 21-year period found that those who lived a physically active lifestyle were 60% less likely to develop anxiety than their less active counterparts.
Meditation has been used for thousands of years as a way to calm the mind and body. Research now indicates that adopting a meditation practice as part of a mental health routine can help reduce anxiety. My personal favorite digital meditation is Mindful.org’s 12-Minute Meditation Podcast.
Often we are harder on ourselves than anyone else. Dr. Leslie recommends that we combine mindfulness, kindness, and common humanity to practice self-compassion. She suggests self-talk like the following:
- You are feeling overwhelmed right now (mindfulness)
- You have a lot going on and anyone in your shoes would feel overwhelmed (common humanity)
- It’s OK to feel overwhelmed—let’s take a break and go outside (kindness).
When to seek help
While anxiety disorders are highly treatable, they often go untreated: only 37% of those suffering from symptoms actually seek treatment. If anxiety is impacting your daily life, reach out to a licensed mental health professional for help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides a checklist for finding a mental health professional that is a good fit for you. If you are experiencing severe symptoms or are in crisis, reach out to NAMI directly at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or text 741741.
Dr. Rebecca Leslie, Psy.D, is a licensed psychologist and owner of Best Within You Therapy & Wellness. She specializes in helping people change their relationship with food. She works with individuals struggling with binge eating, emotional eating, and bulimia. Leslie has a specific specialization in eating with a binge component. She also works with clients who have depression, anxiety, or trouble sleeping. She has experience seeing clients in college counseling centers, medical centers, hospitals, and private practice. Dr. Leslie is a board member of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, Atlanta chapter as well as part of the Georgia Psychological Association Committee for Independent Practice.
Brierley Horton, MS, RD is a dietitian nutritionist, content creator and strategist, and avid mental health advocate. She previously served as Food & Nutrition Director for Cooking Light magazine. Prior to Cooking Light, Brierley was the long-time Nutrition Editor at EatingWell magazine. She holds a master’s degree in Nutrition Communications from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Brierley’s undergraduate degrees are in Dietetics and Nutrition and Food Sciences from the University of Vermont. Her work regularly appears in EatingWell, Better Homes & Gardens, Diabetic Living, Livestrong.com, TheKitchn.com, and more. She is co-creator and co-host of Happy Eating podcast.
Carolyn Williams PHD, RD is a culinary nutrition expert, dietitian, author, and a 2017 James Beard Journalism Award winner who is known for her ability to simplify the science behind health eating. Carolyn’s work is regularly featured in print and online for publications that include EatingWell, Real Simple, Parents, Health, Allrecipes, Prevention, Diabetic Living, MyFitnessPal, eMeals, and the American Heart Association. In 2019, she released Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, a cookbook that teaches readers how to use the healing powers of food in quick, family-friendly recipes to improve overall health. Her next cookbook, One Pot Meals That Heal, is scheduled for release in Fall 2021. She is co-creator and co-host of Happy Eating podcast.
Julie Floyd Jones is an Atlanta, Georgia based Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Yoga Instructor. Julie is the Program Director for Excellence in Exercise where she works with corporate partners to provide wellness solutions for employees globally. She is the founder of Training & Champagning Curated Wellness Retreats and Thrive.