Eat To Beat Anxiety
Author: Nicole Saliba, Accredited Practising Dietitian Date Posted:21 May 2020
Anxiety is the most common mental disorder in Australia. It is estimated that one in four people will experience anxiety at some stage in their life. Over a 12-month period, over two million Australians experience anxiety. Anxiety often goes hand in hand with depression. While we used to think that the brain and body were two separate entities, we now know that they are very much linked. Researchers have found that there is increasing evidence of a link between a poor diet and the worsening of mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.
Mood disorders, in particular depression, are no longer seen as just a brain disorder but a whole-body disorder driven by a dysfunctional immune system that causes inflammation in the body. This inflammation can be caused by poor diet, a lack of movement or exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, poor sleep, stress, vitamin deficiencies such as vitamin D and carrying excess weight.
Worldwide, the 20th century has seen our dietary intakes change with an increased intake of refined sugars, takeaway foods and calorie dense processed foods. At the very same time we know that our intake of nutrient dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole-grains and nuts is decreasing. These changes in our dietary intakes are very likely contributing to our worsening mental and physical health. In fact, we now know that an unhealthy diet is the leading cause of death worldwide.
A recent scientific review found that there is good evidence that a Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables, whole-grains and extra-virgin olive oil, shows mental health benefits such as giving some protection against developing depression and anxiety. A Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes and extra-virgin olive oil and has smaller amounts of fish, meat and dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese. Here are top tips to help you eat well for anxiety
1/ Limit your intake of ultra-processed foods
Observational studies show people with mood disorders often have poor quality diets which are low in fruits and vegetables but high in fat and sugar. Ultra-processed foods are foods which are made in a factory and contain very little if any real food and numerous additives. These include packaged cakes, biscuits, chocolates, ice-cream, soft-drinks, instant noodles, chips, ‘cereal’ and ‘energy’ bars, many ‘breakfast’ cereals, instant sauces, processed meats and ready to heat foods such as chicken nuggets, hot dogs and sausage rolls. These foods are usually lacking in fibre and are high in sodium, refined sugar, saturated fat and food additives. While there is room for all food in a healthy balanced diet a heavy reliance on these foods will do little to improve mood or overall health.
2/ Eat plants and aim for 30g of fibre per day
Fibre comes from plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole-grains, nuts and seeds. Australian’s sadly do not consume enough fibre and do dismally when it comes to meeting the recommended serves of fruit, vegetables, whole-grains and nuts. A fibre-deficient diet is one of the leading causes of poor gut health. More and more research is linking our gut health with our mental health.
Include a minimum of:
- 2 serves of fruit per day: 1 serve is equivalent to two small pieces of fruit or 1 medium piece of fruit
- 5 serves of vegetables aiming for as many different colours as possible: 1 serve of vegetables is equivalent to ½ cup of cooked vegetables or 1 cup of salad
- 4-5 serves of whole-grain foods: 1 serve of whole-grains is equivalent to 1 slice of seeded bread or sourdough bread, ½ cup cooked barley, wholemeal pasta, brown or basmati rice or quinoa, ½ cup cooked porridge, ⅔ cup wheat cereal flakes (30g), ¼ cup muesli (30g) or 3 crisp-breads (35g)
- 30g of raw unsalted nuts or seeds per day
- 1-3 tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup of cooked legumes at least 3x/wk
3/ Minimise intake of alcohol and caffeine
Minimise your intake of caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, energy drinks, cola drinks and chocolate A daily intake of 400mg or more of caffeine has been associated with an increased risk of anxiety. It is important to note that caffeine has a long half-life of 3–7 hours meaning that 3-7hrs after ingesting a coffee, half the amount of caffeine is still circulating in the body. Caffeine may affect sleep quality and contribute to insomnia so it's best to have a coffee curfew after lunch. While it may be tempting to drink your feelings or have a glass of wine to help wind yourself down before bed, alcohol is a depressant. Heavy drinking may contribute to mood imbalances, weight gain and disease risk, interfere with medications, and disturb the quality and quantity of sleep.
4. Boost your intake of omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are well known for their impact on brain health. Including at least three serves of oily fish per week such as salmon, sardines, tuna and trout will help to meet the recommended daily intake of 500mg of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids include chia seeds, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, hemp seeds, soy beans and walnuts.