The Best Foods For Anxiety Or Depression

Last updated on : December 01 2020

Healthy salads on a table

Anti-Anxiety And Depression Foods

Anxiety and depression are becoming the most prevalent mental health issues of our time.

While there is no recent data that can give us precise and specific numbers, we estimate that 31% of adults worldwide will experience an anxiety disorder at one point in their life and that over 264 million people suffer from depression.

Knowing that you are not alone if you are feeling anxious or depressed is undoubtedly helpful. However, this fact alone can't do much to relieve your symptoms and make your life a little better.

Something that can help, though, is food.

You are what you eat, so the saying goes, and there is certainly plenty of truth in that statement. The foods we eat will impact our moods, our energy levels, even our thoughts.

The Gut-Happiness Connection

Surprisingly, a lot of our mental issues originate from the gut. While there are certainly those that have nothing to do with what we eat and are completely un-gut-related, we know that our stomach problems can lead to anxiety and mental anguish.

Our gut is full of bacteria and microbes that are good for our mental health. When we shove a lot of unhealthy food full of sugar and processed ingredients into it, it doesn't feel happy – and neither do we in the long run, despite that initial joy-like feeling we get from the meal.

When we don't take care of our gut microbes, the microbes that are our first defense line against invasions, they won't be up to the task. We're essentially letting our guard down and allowing all kinds of harmful pathogens to enter our bodies.

And this makes us feel all kinds of unhappy – ill, moody, tired, irritable, anxious, depressed, and overall, rather unhealthy.

Let's see what we can do to keep our guts, and consequently our bodies and minds, happy.

Let's take a look at the foods that may help you ease some of your depression or anxiety symptoms, starting with the foods you should avoid. 

Foods to Avoid If You Have Depression Or Anxiety

Bad food for anxiety and depression

Often, what we think of as food that boosts our mood is not the kind of food that can make us happier.

Think about the kinds of foods you reach for a boost – the chocolates, the ice creams, the candy bars, or the savory comfort options that are usually highly processed and calorie-dense.

While these kinds of foods can undoubtedly boost our mood in the short term, making us feel more energized, there's also a downside to them.

First, we know they are not suitable for us, so there is an inherent feeling of guilt after eating an entire tub of ice cream.

Second, they don't give us the nourishment we need, which means we're not getting happier in the long run, only unhealthier.

And lastly, years of consuming these foods can lead to changes in our bodies that can be very harmful not only to our physical health but also to our mental health.

So let's take a look at some of the foods you should try to avoid, and why:

  • Foods with too much sugar – You find added sugar in beverages and plenty of snacks, most often in the form of artificial sweeteners, which are very bad for your gut health. Sugar can mess with your insulin levels and cause mood and energy fluctuations, among other things.
  • Saturated fats – most often found in takeout foods, fast foods, snack foods, and all the items you know are not right for you, but still, eat because they taste good.
  • Overly processed foods – processed foods are generally bad for you. These include processed cereals – white bread and refined breakfast cereals, which you can replace with healthier options, and processed meats such as salami and processed sausages.
  • Fried foods – Again, just bad for you overall; they also lead to weight gain, and that leads to a whole list of other health issues down the line.
  • Too much salt – Salt can lead to dehydration, which will impair your concentration, and that's something you are already most likely struggling to improve.
  • Sugary drinks – They can also lead to dehydration, and they will only increase your sugar intake.
  • Alcohol – It depresses your central nervous system, meaning it can worsen your bad mood if you suffer from depression. It can exacerbate your negative thoughts and kick you down a very negative spiral if you suffer from anxiety.
  • Caffeine – It can disrupt sleep, and if you suffer from anxiety, it can make your physical symptoms worse by increasing your heart rate.

Depending on how you are feeling at any given moment, you can, of course, indulge in sweets and coffee. But do bear in mind that it might affect you in a way you were not expecting.

Foods to Eat If You Are Feeling Anxious Or Depressed

There are plenty of foods that can help lift the mood in the long term and lead us into that feeling of contentment and happiness. All of them are good both for our bodies and minds, and they're also delicious.

You may think that most of them sound dull, not tasty enough and that they'll never taste quite like a Snickers bar. While you do have a point about the Snickers, you need to shake off the mistaken belief that good food has to taste bland.

Just ask Google for a bit of help, and it will be delighted to offer hundreds of healthy and tasty recipes featuring some of the hearty foods we're about to list.

As for the Snickers, try making your own – and you'll never repurchase another bar.

Try the foods below to benefit your mental health, often in more ways than one. You can mix many of these foods, providing the ultimate nourishing, healthy, mood-boosting meal.

1 - Carbs With A Low Glycemic Index

Forget all those diets that would have you swear off carbs. There's nothing wrong with carbs; they are the fuel that our body turns into glucose, which is what we mostly run on.

To fuel your body well, try to aim for clean foods and carbs that provide a slow but steady burn, not something you will burn through very fast and mess with your energy and sugar levels, impacting your mood. Look for carbs with a low glycemic index instead, such as:

  • fresh fruits
  • legumes such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas
  • sweet potato
  • sweet corn
  • milk and yogurt
  • rolled oats as opposed to processed oats
  • bread made of rye, wholemeal, wholegrain, or sourdough 

2 - Healthy fats

Similarly, fats are not the devil either. Our body needs fat to survive, and we all have some. While we often find it ugly, if we were to reduce our body fat percentages too much, we wouldn't survive.

However, the kind of fat we eat is critical. We need to focus on omega-3 fatty acids more than the omega-6 fats we mostly eat as a part of our western diet.

Here is where you can find plenty of healthy fats:

  • fish such as sardines, tuna, anchovies, salmon, and herring
  • algae
  • seafood
  • nuts, such as almonds and walnuts

Now that you have a general idea of the kinds of foods you need to eat, let's list a couple of specific items you can up your intake of:

3 – Asparagus

Studies have shown that those suffering from anxiety and depression can also often suffer from folate deficiency.

This deficiency might be the case with you too, and the best way to test the theory is to add more asparagus to your diet – as one cup of this veggie provides as much as two-thirds of your daily recommended folate intake.

The easiest way to eat asparagus is to steam or grill it and swap your fries for it – you can dip it into hummus, salsa, or your other preferred dip.

4 – Avocado

When you're struggling with anxiety or depression, vitamin B6 is a significant one to include in your diet. B6 helps your body produce several neurotransmitters, including the happy hormone, serotonin.

All B vitamins are great for the nervous system, and one food that is incredibly rich in them is the avocado. It also has plenty of vitamin E, which plays a role in improving your cognitive abilities and is also used by the body to form red blood cells.

You can add avo to anything – oatmeal, bagels, on top of toast, to salads and dips, smoothies, and pasta. You can add to its flavor very quickly, so even if you don't particularly like the taste, you can make it in a salsa or with a condiment and enjoy its benefits without the bite.

5 – Nuts - Almonds, Brazil And Walnut

Magnesium is another micronutrient that seems to be effective in treating anxiety-related symptoms. A lack of magnesium can reduce the serotonin level in your brain, so upping your intake can keep your mood in check.

The best way to get your fill of magnesium is to eat some almonds, as 12 of them will contain about 20% of your daily magnesium requirements. (You can also find magnesium in avocado, hint hint.)

Nuts are also full of healthy fats and fiber, so munching on them instead of a piece of cake or ice cream is a great way to satiate the cravings.

Add them to salads, oats, on top of your pasta dishes, or even on top of meats – you'll be surprised how well they go together. However, they are also high in calories, so don't eat a whole pack while watching Netflix. That won't have the effect you want.

6 – Berries in General, Blueberries in Particular

Berries are among the healthiest fruits you can choose to eat because they tend to be full of vitamin C and antioxidants to help you balance your mood. They also contain a lot of magnesium, which is essential for regulating your sleep and lowering your stress levels. Magnesium also helps keep your heart healthy.

In particular, blueberries have a high vitamin C content, so reaching for a bowl of blueberries the next time you feel like something sweet can help you both combat your cravings and get some much-needed micronutrients.

You can also go for strawberries or raspberries, or any berry you can get your hands on. You can also use the frozen variety when there is no new option available. Berries are also great with oats, in a smoothie, or juice. You can also add them to pancakes or eat them as they are.

7 – Milk

Milk is one of those foods that will help you fall asleep more easily. This sleep help is not just a myth – it does work.

Milk is also full of calcium, magnesium, and potassium. So it can be another source of these precious micronutrients.

If you are drinking milk before bed, warm it up a bit. You can also add a dash of cinnamon for flavor, but try to refrain from the cocoa. If you are looking to up your milk intake during the day, you can add it to your coffee, use it in oats, pancakes, and various dishes.

If you are vegan or vegetarian, there are also plenty of plant-based options available that are just as tasty and have a whole host of benefits as well.

8 – Tomatoes

Tomatoes are another veggie that is full of folic acid and alpha-lipoic acid, which is an excellent aid in combating depression, as you already know.

Tomatoes are also full of lycopene, which helps your skin and hair be as healthy as possible, so adding a tomato or two to your diet can be quite beneficial.

Upping your tomato intake should not be an issue – pasta, pizzas, salads, salsas, all of that delicious Mediterranean and Mexican food is full of tomatoes. Just pick your favorite recipe (and your favorite tomato), and tuck in.

9 – Salmon (And Other Fatty Fish)

A study has suggested that omega-3 fatty acids are very useful in combating the signs and symptoms of anxiety, and a great source of this superfood is salmon. (You can also find it in olive oil, which you can add to your salads, but salmon is an excellent replacement for red meat.)

Omega-3 fatty acids help control your adrenaline and cortisol levels when you feel particularly stressed, which is undoubtedly a welcome relief for those struggling with their mental health.

You can go for other fatty fish, but most people seem to prefer salmon, and it is easy to source and easy to prepare. Add some lemon and parsley, dress up your salmon with some spices, and enjoy a quick, easy, and nutritious meal.

10 – Yogurt (And Other Fermented Foods)

Fermented foods, the most popular of which is yogurt, are a great way to reduce anxiety. They contain plenty of probiotic cultures that are great for your gut, and while we don't yet know enough about the way our gut works, we do know that a lot of our immune system is in our gut function. In short, a healthy gut can improve your mental and physical health immensely.

The best kind of yogurt you can eat is plain Greek yogurt, as it has as many as 100 million probiotic cultures per gram.

As for other fermented foods, you can try pickles, sauerkraut, or kombucha.

Add yogurt to your cereal, or have it with some berries – an easy and fast meal to lift your mood.

11 - Chilies 

If you like spicy foods, you're in luck. Chili contains a substance called capsaicin, which makes you tear up when eating something very spicy. It also causes your body to release endorphins as a response, which puts you in a better mood.

12 - Vanilla 

But it has to be real vanilla, not the vanillin that produced artificially. Vanilla boosts endorphin release, and it can put you in a more relaxed mood. That's why burning vanilla-scented candles is an excellent way to relax.

13 - Dark Chocolate 

The more cocoa you have in your chocolate, the better, so look for the kind that has as much of it as you can reasonably tolerate, as it will taste very different than milk chocolate.

Cocoa is high in tryptophan and theobromine, which triggers serotonin release, which puts you in that good mood after eating it.

14 - Eggs 

Eggs are rich in amino acids and vitamins D and B12, and they also contain zinc and magnesium. They're high in protein as well, so they will keep your blood sugar levels stable and provide a nourishing meal.

Also, don't believe you need to eat egg whites only – you can eat all of the yolks, too.

15 - Oats

Oats is an excellent source of complex carbs and are that perfect slow-burning meal that will keep you energized but won't mess with your glucose levels.

They're also rich in magnesium and boost the production of serotonin. Be careful that you buy rolled oats with no added sugar and not the kind that has a lot of extra sugar and heavy processing.

A note on healthy food for anxiety and depression

We are what we eat, as that old saying goes. And the more healthily we eat, the healthier we'll become.

However, remember that you can still go overboard on the healthy options, too, so you always want to stay mindful of the amount of food you eat, and not just what that food is.

Also, keep in mind that you need plenty of variety. Switch things around and try new foods and flavor combinations to keep your meals interesting.

Try to eat seasonal fruits and veggies and foods sourced locally as much as you can. This practice will not only benefit your health but your local environment as well.

You can also focus your diet on natural fat burning foods if you're looking to achieve weight loss goals. 

Final Thoughts

Relaxing image of flowers

We're all very aware of the connection between our physical health and the foods we eat. We know that to stay healthy and avoid all kinds of preventable diseases, we need to enjoy a balanced diet filled with all the macro and micro-nutrients our bodies need.

However, there is now evidence that the foods we eat also have an incredible impact on our mental health and daily mood.

By incorporating some (or all) of these foods into your daily diet, you can expect to start feeling a bit better.

Please don't make the mistake of thinking they can provide instant relief to your anxiety or depression or that they can cure your mental health issues. You will need to keep working on them in other ways as well, and balancing out your diet will help you remain calmer and focused on your path to getting better.

As always, consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to your diet, particularly if you feel anxious or depressed. 

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