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Last Updated on March 5, 2021
Each of us has a special relationship with food that goes beyond mere sustenance.
We eat for so many other reasons — to observe special traditions with our families, to fit in at social gatherings, to reward ourselves, to distract from boredom, and to combat stress.
The problem when we’re anxious is that we often reach for foods that make us feel comforted. But that feeling is fleeting. Many of the foods and drinks we partake of when we’re anxious actually worsen anxiety.
We’ll review the top culprits to avoid if you have anxiety and explain why.
So what should you do instead? We’ll provide a list of foods that will result in positive effects. We’ll also share a few unique ways to reduce stress that may curb your appetite for stress-eating in the first place.
Foods and Drinks to Avoid When Suffering with Anxiety
Here are the main culprits that are impacting your mental health.
Drinking when you’re anxious can calm your nerves and put you at ease, but it’s only short-term, and your anxiety boomerangs.
Since alcohol changes the levels of serotonin and the neurotransmitters in your brain, you may feel even more anxious when it wears off. Alcohol also has a negative impact on hydration and sleep. When either of those are suppressed, they can trigger anxiety symptoms.
Drinking alcohol causes your blood sugar levels to spike and fall, which stimulates the brain to feel hungry. Couple that with the lapse of judgment that’s an effect of drinking, and you can find yourself ordering unhealthy, greasy foods to satiate your increased appetite.
It’s not surprising that coffee would be a biggie on this list since it stimulates the central nervous system. It alerts your “fight or flight” response and can make anxiety worse, so much so that it can even trigger an anxiety attack.
But watch out for foods, other beverages, and medications you may not have thought of that contain caffeine — especially close to bedtime. There’s also caffeine in chocolate (the darker the chocolate, the higher the caffeine content), chocolate-flavored ice cream, frozen yogurt, pudding, and even breakfast cereals.
You may also want to rethink that nighttime cup of hot cocoa. Even decaffeinated coffee contains two to 12 milligrams of caffeine.
And caffeine is a common additive in PMS medications (it works as a diuretic to reduce bloating) and headache remedies (to improve aspirin and acetaminophen’s relief of pain).
There are several reasons to steer clear of eating processed foods if you want to decrease your anxiety. Processed foods tend to be high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, salt, artificial ingredients, and trans fats.
Added sugars cause your blood sugar to rise rapidly, so your energy rises, but it also causes a rapid crash. When your energy lowers quickly, your anxiety level spikes. Foods you may not think of as being sugary include condiments like ketchup, certain salad dressings, pastas, and white bread.
Refined carbohydrates are considered empty calories. They’re digested quickly and have a high glycemic index. So they mirror the effect of added sugars.
Too much sodium can harm your neurological system, causing fatigue, depression, panic episodes, and immune system damage.
If you eat fat-free foods, check the labels for sodium. To retain flavor, many food manufacturers load up on the salt.
Food additives like artificial sweeteners and dyes are neurotoxins. They can disrupt normal nervous system function and lead to increased symptoms of anxiety. And trans fats that are in baked goods increase the development of anxiety-like symptoms.
Aged, Fermented, and Cultured Foods
That charcuterie board looks like a delicious way to snack and have some variety, but watch out: Those tasty meats and cheese undergo a process in which bacteria break down the food proteins into biogenic amines, and one of those is histamine.
Histamine is a neurotransmitter that can trigger anxiety as well as insomnia. It aggravates digestion, hormones, and the cardiovascular and nervous systems.
Deep frying is usually done in hydrogenated oil, which is linked to depression. And processed oils contain chemicals and additives that can increase inflammation within your body. Fried foods also have little nutritional value and are tough to digest.
So you may be pleasing your taste buds, but the rest of you won’t be feeling so hot soon after.
Unique Ways to Reduce Anxiety
We have a list of “feel good” foods for you that spur the release of serotonin and dopamine — and a few other alternatives for lowering your anxiety.
Healthy eating can cut levels of cortisol and adrenaline, helping to build up your immune system and lower your blood pressure.
So when you feel the need to eat when you’re stressed, here’s what to choose to help make you feel better:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, and herring
- Magnesium-rich foods: Leafy greens such as spinach and Swiss chard, as well as legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains
- Zinc-rich foods: Eggs, oysters, beef, liver, and cashews
- B vitamin-rich foods: Avocados and almonds
- Probiotic foods: Pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir
Foods rich in antioxidants may also help ease the symptoms of anxiety. So also feel free to reach for:
- Beans: dried small red, Pinto, black, and red kidney
- Fruits: apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious), prunes, sweet cherries, plums, and black plums
- Berries: blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, and blueberries
- Nuts: walnuts and pecans
- Vegetables: Artichokes, kale, spinach, beets, and broccoli
- Spices: turmeric and ginger
Feed Your Mind With Positivity
Instead of seeking comfort through food to fight your COVID anxiety, find comfort in re-experiencing what you watched and listened to what made you happy during your growing-up years, from TV shows and movies to video games and music.
Nostalgia is a great comfort enhancer, and nowadays it’s not hard to find those nuggets of childhood nirvana.
But don’t keep your “blasts from the pasts” one-sided. Reconnecting with old friends can be an anxiety buster, but do more than texting. Reach out and catch up with a phone call or a video chat for some person-to-person connection.
A good way to distract yourself from anxious thoughts is to work on creating an anxiety-free environment. Since you’re most likely stuck at home, why not make it a calmer place?
The easiest and most affordable tip? Declutter. Cleaning up your space will help make you feel more serene.
Perhaps you’ll create enough space to place an aquarium. Watching the fish lowers stress by reducing your blood pressure and heart rate and improving your mood.
Other ways to de-stress your home include painting your walls in stress-free colors, dimming bright lights by installing a dimmer switch or controlling smart light bulbs with your phone, which can also help you save on home insurance rates, and creating a nice outdoor space to sit in nature and just breathe.
The American Psychological Association’s latest Stress in America survey from January 2021 found that 72 percent of Americans reported feeling stressed about money at least sometime in the prior month.
If money woes are causing you to crave a row of Oreos, curb that urge by getting a handle on your finances.
Listing all your income sources and monthly expenses is a great way not only to determine unnecessary expenses you can pare down or eliminate, but it can also help you create a budget.
Your next step is to see how you can reduce your monthly bills to increase your funds.
Contact your credit card companies to discuss lowering your interest rate, working out a payment plan, or settling your debt for a fraction of what you owe. Most companies will be willing to work with you.
Contact other companies for which you have bills. Explain your situation, ask for discounts, and negotiate a lower rate.
Find ways to cut back on your large expenses. For example, on your auto and home insurance, compare at least three companies’ rates. You can save hundreds of dollars a year by switching to a new carrier.
Also decrease anxiety about paying bills by taking advantage of autopay. This way you won’t want to be anxious about getting bills paid on time or incurring late fees.
And make saving money easier by setting up a portion of your paycheck to be directly deposited into your savings account. With the “out of sight, out of mind” approach, you won’t miss a small deduction and you’ll be regularly adding to your emergency fund or other savings vehicle.
Taking a proactive approach to your finances can help you save money, feel a sense of accomplishment, and gain control — all of which will help lower your anxiety.
Many of these tips have worked for me. Trading breakfast pastries and late-night ice cream for fruits and nuts has made me feel better and look better. And saving $1,400 annually by switching my auto and home insurance and negotiating my SiriusXM bill has relieved a big chunk of financial anxiety.
So my hope is that, like me, these tips can help both increase the quality of what you eat when you’re stressed as well as decrease the frequency of your stress eating.
Karen Condor is a wellness expert who writes and researches for the insurance comparison site, TheTruthAboutInsurance.com.