There are plenty of reasons to reconsider what's in your diet, from ethical and environmental concerns to simply wanting your body to function better. And when it comes to the latter, there's more than just your physical body to factor in. Yes, some foods can make your skin more glow-y, your hair and nails longer and stronger, and even your belly less bloated-feeling — but what about your brain? Does food affect your mental health? Nutrition experts and medical professionals say it does, and some of the biggest culprits for triggering stress and anxiety might be a part of your daily diet.
Just as there are foods that can bring about feelings of depression, anxiety, and brain fog, others can do the exact opposite — even helping you manage those aforementioned symptoms. But it's also important to note that everyone's body is different and consulting your physician about any potential food issues and/or a mental health professional for regularly occurring emotional wellness issues is always in your best interest. That said, if you think your eating habits have been playing a role in how you've been feeling and are curious about which foods experts say you should shop and which you should probably skip (or seriously limit), read ahead.
Food To Avoid: Sugar
It's probably not news to you by now that sugar has been proven to cause anxiety, a fact nutritionist Caitlin Self of Frugal Nutrition signs off on. "I hate to vilify sugar, but we know that there’s a huge causal connection with excessive glucose in the blood stream and serious mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression," she says. "Every time your blood sugar is elevated, it has a negative effect on your brain, damaging cognitive function and resulting in brain fog, attention deficits, and poor memory. Additionally, excessive sugar reduces the production of a chemical called BDNF, and low levels of BDNF are linked to increased incidence of depression."
However, Self notes that this doesn't mean you shouldn't enjoy the occasional sweet treat — just do so in moderation. "Reducing things like sugar-sweetened beverages, juice, sugary sauces and dips, refined carbohydrates like bagels, pasta, and pastries, and the sugar in your coffee can make a big difference," she explains. "Giving yourself three to five hours between meals to give your body a break from blood sugar spikes is a simple way to reduce blood sugar spikes."
Food To Avoid: Aspartame
If you've been turning to artificial sweeteners like aspartame as a means of cutting back sugar, Dr. William W. Li, physician and author of Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself has some bad news. "Consuming high levels [of aspartame] has been associated with depression and its metabolites are toxic to brain neurons," he explains. Maybe it's time to ditch that diet soda habit?
Food To Avoid: Caffeine
If you can't seem to get a handle on your anxiety, there's evidence to support the fact that cutting back on caffeine can help. While your daily cup of joe (or other preferred form of caffeine intake) does spike your cortisol for a burst of energy, Self explains that messing with your brain's innate messaging can cause a fight-or-flight reaction. "Caffeine also elevates blood pressure and can cause synthetic anxiety," she adds. "Try to swap out that second or third cup of coffee with green tea, herbal tea, or other caffeine-free beverages like dandelion blends, mushroom 'coffee,' and adaptogens."
Food To Avoid: Gluten
Gluten: It's complicated. "We don’t understand gluten quite as well as we understand some other foods like sugar and caffeine, but we do know that gluten intake is linked to increased risk of food sensitivities and it naturally triggers increased permeability in the gut," says Self. So what does that have to do with your mental health? Well, a lot actually. According to the nutritionist, your gut microbiome controls mental health and brain function.
That said, it's important not to completely carve out carbs for good. "While carbs are getting a bad reputation these days, they are actually very beneficial for mood in the correct amounts," says Dr. Kate Denniston of Los Angeles Integrative Health. "Eating a moderate portion of complex carbohydrates, like quinoa or beans, in the evening can help reduce the stress hormone cortisol and help us shift out of the fight or flight state before we go to sleep."
Food To Add: Wild Fish
"Wild fish, especially small fish like sardines and anchovies, are excellent brain foods, but just keep the farmed fish to a minimum," says Self, who points to their high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and lower levels of mercury (in comparison to large, farmed fish), which can block neural functioning and raise the risk of cognitive decline, anxiety, brain fog, and depression.
Food To Add: Dark Leafy Greens
"Leafy greens are full of folate, which is one of the main super important nutrients for reducing and managing anxiety," Self says. "Folate works in concert with B12 and B6 to prevent anxiety, so making sure you have enough of all three is really important." A good way to get more folate? Try three cups of raw (or one cup of cooked) spinach daily.
Food To Add: Purple Fruits And Veggies
"Dark blue and purple foods contain special antioxidants, anthocyanins, that are incredibly useful at battling inflammation and are great foods for brain health," says Self. So consider stocking up on blueberries, blackberries, and purple vegetables next time you're at the market.
Food To Add: Tree Nuts
"Tree nuts like walnuts, almonds, cashews, and macadamia nuts are a good source of dietary fiber that feeds our microbiome, or our healthy gut bacteria," says Li. "A well-fed microbiome helps the brain make neurotransmitters that counter depression and lower anxiety."
Food To Add: Avocado
Yet another reason to keep up your avocado toast habit. According to Li, this healthy-fat boasting fruit (yep, it's a fruit) is a good source of magnesium. "Researchers have shown low magnesium levels are associated with depression and anxiety, so boost your mood by cutting one up into a salad or go for the guacamole," he says.