By now you probably know that the state of the standard American diet is a sad one, and that most people in this country do not eat the way they should. Eating a proper diet has become more of a challenge than ever – it seems that at every turn, we face the aggressive marketing of highly processed “foods” that are virtually unrecognizable compared to their “real” counterparts (think the chicken McNugget versus grilled chicken breast).
If you follow this blog, you know that a balanced, nutrient-rich diet is a huge component of controlling anxiety. The bottom line is that we all know we need to change the way we eat; but for most of us, our diet isn’t going to change overnight. The vast majority have to implement changes slowly, making a point to add in new, healthful foods while gradually cutting out others. If you’re seeking to make an impact on your anxiety by changing your diet, you may want to start by first eliminating these four foods that aggravate anxiety.
1. Soft drinks
Out of all the foods that made this list, soda may be the worst offender. Regular soda is packed with calories that come from the processed sugar high-fructose corn syrup, and diet soda is sweetened with the artificial, calorie-free sugar substitute aspartame. Aspartame has been widely linked to a range of symptoms, including anxiety and hyperactivity, though as of yet no studies have supported these claims.
Alongside the sugar (or sugar substitute), soda also contains phosphoric acid, which interferes with the absorption of key minerals such as calcium. (Learn more about the link between calcium deficiency and anxiety.) So in addition to the complete lack of nutritional value in soda, drinking it actually interferes with you body’s ability to take advantage of the minerals it does get. And of course, there’s the issue of caffeine, which brings us to our next food that aggravates anxiety …
The main reason we love coffee is also exactly why it’s such a trigger for anxiety: caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant, which provides a sense of alertness and focus; consume too much caffeine, however, and you face a number of unpleasant symptoms that are nearly identical to the symptoms of anxiety: racing heart, sweating, restlessness, nausea, etc. “Caffeine-related anxiety” is even recognized as a disorder by the American Psychological Association.
As a nation of coffee drinkers, many of us believe we “need” our coffee to function. We’re so accustomed to having our morning cup that we may not notice the impact it has on anxiety levels.
If you drink coffee regularly, it’s best to reduce your coffee intake gradually to avoid unpleasant symptoms such as headaches and nausea. You can start by mixing decaf with regular, or trading cups of coffee for cups of green or black tea. For one month, keep your coffee consumption to one small cup a day – or none at all, ideally. Note how your body and anxiety levels respond. You will likely notice that more energy, better-quality sleep, and a calmer outlook overall.
3. Fast food
Fast food is tempting because it’s cheap, convenient, and offers flavors that many of us have come to crave. Unfortunately, when we consume fast food, we fill up on plenty of calories, but not many nutrients. The macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates and protein) are there, but fast food lacks the vitamins, minerals and other healthful compounds found in foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and high-quality proteins.
Instead, fast food masks low-quality and mainly artificial ingredients with highly addictive combinations of fat, sugar and salt, making us prone to cravings and a sense of insatiability. Between its addictive properties and its extreme accessibility, Americans have become far too reliant on fast food. When your diet consists of a large percentage of fast food, you miss opportunities to take in important nutrients that are essential to your physical and mental well-being.
4. Processed Foods
One hundred years ago, many of this country’s most commonly consumed and beloved food products would not have been recognized as food: mac & cheese from a box, Oreos, Pringles, Rice a Roni, instant mashed potatoes, biscuits from a can … the list goes on. Just like fast food, processed foods contain excessive sugar, fat and salt, and few nutrients.
They are packed with artificial flavorings, dyes and preservatives, and high-fructose corn syrup adds ample sugar to foods you might not expect to contain much sweetener at all: breads, “healthy” cereals and granola bars, and salad dressings and condiments, to name only a handful.
A balanced diet, which is crucial for anxiety management, doesn’t have much room for highly processed foods. A piece of advice that’s often cited is that you should shop along the perimeter of the grocery store, since this is where the nutritious, whole foods are typically located, whereas the middle aisles are full of processed junk foods.
This is generally a good rule, with the caveat that many grocery stores now have natural/organic and ethnic food aisles that carry a great deal of healthy, less-processed foods. Perhaps the best advice to follow are these two bits of wisdom: “If your great-grandparents wouldn’t have considered it food, don’t eat it,” and “Don’t eat anything that’s advertised on TV.”