Diet and Anxiety - is there a connection?

How do eating, diet and anxiety problems relate to each other? - is there a correlation between your diet and anxiety, or the way that you eat and anxiety? 

Absolutely! It can be a major cause of anxiety disorders for some. Following some simple diet tips is an easy way to help settle your nervous system and feel more grounded.

Excessive weight loss diet and anxiety?

Panic and anxiety are very common amongst those who diet excessively. If your profession demands that you stay particularly thin – for example, you're a model, dancer or actor, this may put you particularly at risk.  People suffering from anorexia or bulimia are also usually suffering from an anxiety state because of the physiological imbalance caused by lack of food. These are the more obvious examples of how diet and anxiety are related.

Most people report feeling much more grounded and calm when they are eating properly and carrying normal weight. For others, diet and anxiety may not seem to be as dramatically interrelated. Still, there is always benefit you can experience from following a few simple diet tips – drawn mainly from the wonderful health philosophy of Ayurveda.

Ayurvedic body types shed some light on anxiety

According to Ayurveda, there are three main constitutional types – put simply:

‣ those who are naturally slim (known as Vata types),

‣ those who are more muscular and stocky (Pitta types) and

‣ those who tend to gain weight easily (Kapha types).  

Guess which type is most prone to anxiety problems?

That’s right! Vata people tend to eat irregularly, don’t put on weight easily, often tend to be ‘creative’ types and are by far the most anxious. But those who aren’t naturally slim like Vata types can significantly increase their tendency to become anxious by trying to look like a Vata person and eating less than their bodies demand. Understanding these constitutional types is enormously useful in understanding how anxiety issues develop (more info on a page coming soon ). 

Generally speaking, if you are trying to recover from an anxiety disorder, this is not the time to be trying to drastically lose weight (though this is often a normal consequence of suffering anxiety problems). But, if you are overweight please, let commonsense prevail! 

Food and your mood

Who doesn’t feel more at peace with the world after great food, in relaxed and pleasant company, especially in the middle of the day? Eating a good meal, is one of life’s great pleasures and genuinely has the ability to make us feel more settled and calm. When you are suffering from an anxiety disorder it can feel as though even this simple pleasure has been taken from you, with a loss of appetite and poor digestion being common symptoms. This is when your diet and anxiety reduction can work together - some attention to what and how you eat can, slowly over time, make a significant difference to your recovery. 

Special Note: when you are looking at the connection between diet and anxiety, you will notice that the foods recommended by Ayurveda for this are not at first sight what would be considered a ‘healthy’ diet in this ‘carb conscious’ age. But here we’re looking at a diet to help you if you are suffering the terrible discomfort of an anxiety disorder. This is the time to be gentle and nurturing to yourself and it’s suggested that if you have been following an intensive weight loss regime that you ease up a bit - there is a good chance that it may have contributed to your anxiety state.

If you are overweight make sure you follow very closely the five step process and tips for reducing anxiety, eat only when hungry and in small amounts, and eat a balanced diet.

If you have any special dietary needs or allergies make sure you discuss your diet and anxiety issues with your health care professional first.

Diet and Anxiety Tips

Follow these tips as part of your anxiety disorder recovery programme:

  • Anxious people tend to be cold, suffer from dry skin, are often underweight, feel ungrounded and have an erratic digestion – so go for warm, heavy, slightly oily and thoroughly cooked foods in your diet, and anxiety will reduce over time as these foods help you feel more settled and begin to calm your anxious nervous system.
  • All soothing foods help settle agitated nerves – soups, stews, casseroles, fresh baked bread, warm milk, hot cereals.
  • Sweet taste and warmth are the most soothing according to Ayurveda – rice, milk, butter, cream, wheat bread are all considered sweet.
  • A good nourishing breakfast helps keep the nervous system settled through the day.  Hot cereal is great, but anything warm, milky and sweet is good. If you're a smoothie lover try a hot one instead, such as this delicious hot apple cinnamon smoothie, warm green apple pie smoothie or this warming orange carrot and ginger version.
  • The anxious often need a snack at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when you feel a dive in energy levels.  Time for hot tea and biscuits! (or something similar).  It is best to avoid caffeine (in tea, coffee, cola etc) which will jangle the nerves.  Try ginger tea (see below), gotu kola, cardamon, fennel, fruit teas, or at the very least decaffeinated beverages.
  • If you have been suffering an imbalance for a long time or want to improve your digestion, try sipping ginger tea throughout the day.  You can do this using a thermos that you can carry with you.  Slice off a few thin pieces of fresh ginger and place in thermos.  Pour on boiling water and replace lid.  Sip regularly during the day. This is a delicious, warming drink.
  • High density sugar foods, whilst initially comforting, give a quick boost which may cause too much agitation followed by a slump in energy when blood sugar often dips below the ideal level afterwards, leaving you jangled and exhausted. If you are going to eat sweets/candy take them in moderation with something more nourishing like milk.
  • Nuts and seeds are heavy and oily and so make a good snack and are generally good for helping to settle nervousness and anxiety, but can be difficult to digest.  Try them in small quantities or ground up into nut or seed butters.  Ground sesame seeds make tahini, a wonderful, healthy and settling food.  Try hommous, a delicious and soothing combination of chick peas, tahini, lemon juice, garlic (possibly some spices such as cumin) and salt.
  • Salads – if you like them have moderate amounts only, especially in cold weather – when the weather is hot it’s fine to have more and eat them at room temperature with an oily dressing.  
  • It is generally best for all vegetables to be well cooked (rather than steamed) with a little oil.

General Tips to Improve Digestion

It is not just the food we eat that is important.  Of equal importance is how we eat it.  Even the freshest, healthiest food will do us no good if we can’t digest it properly. These tips will help you to make sure your digestion is working at its best and that you will get the most benefit from your food. 

  • Eat in a clean, settled, quiet, peaceful environment (don’t read, work or watch television during meals).
  • Always sit to eat.
  • Never eat when upset or angry.
  • Eat at a moderate pace with your attention on your food.  Chew well.
  • Eat only when hungry (i.e. after previous meal is digested – 2-4 hours for light meals, 4-6 for full meals).
  • Avoid ice cold food and drinks (these affect your ability to efficiently digest your food).
  • Sip warm water with your meal.
  • Eat freshly cooked meals whenever possible (generally avoid tinned and processed foods and cold leftovers). Here we are looking at getting the most value from the food we eat by favouring food that is fresh.
  • Don’t overdo raw foods; warm well-cooked food is much easier to digest.
  • Include all six tastes at every meal i.e. sweet, salty, sour, bitter, astringent, pungent (see foods for anxiety for more details).
  • Leave one third to one quarter of your stomach empty to aid digestion.
  • Yoghurt and all cheeses are best avoided at night because they are difficult to digest.
  • Food should always be delicious and pleasing to the eye.
  • Take a few minutes to sit quietly and relax after eating and before returning to activity.
  • Sipping hot water throughout the day is very cleansing and helpful for anyone suffering from anxiety problems. Add some ginger slices (see above) for a warm and soothing drink.

Pay attention to how you eat and your diet, and anxiety problems will be given another great opportunity  to start to settle. Make sure you check out the 23 Lifestyle Tips, the Five Step Process and all the other Anxiety Unravelled pages so that you give yourself the best chance of speeding up your recovery  by approaching it from as many different angles as possible.

previous page - Read about Foods for Anxiety

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Eat foods that settle not stimulate!

Do you have a feeling that sometimes what you eat is making your anxiety worse...or perhaps you just want to make sure that your diet is going to support your recovery. But with so many contradictory ideas about diet these days, where do you turn to get some reliable information about this?

Luckily for us, we have access to the wonderful wisdom of Ayurveda - as relevant today as ever... 

...foods to soothe helps you take the worry out of food. 

Read more