Is Your Comfort Food Making You Anxious?
You've just had yet another stressful day and you're anxious. Your mind is reeling as it ruminates over the myriad of blunders, problems, and challenging interactions. Anxiety rages, and "what-ifs" and worries are spinning out of control. Your stomach churns; your head pounds. You throw your things onto a table or couch and head right for the kitchen. Do you rummage for healthy food or do you do what a vast majority of us do--seek out the junk food? Is your food making your anxious?It's no surprise that, when stressed and anxious, many of us turn to food. Comfort food, after all, is part of the human experience. Because of how the body digests and uses it, food has the potential to nourish, warm, improve mood, increase energy, or calm. That's why we instinctively are drawn to food when anxious or otherwise upset.
When we're anxious, life can be hard to swallow; therefore, we want tasty foods that slide down easily. There is an irony to this, however. Many of us turn to food to decrease anxiety, but in doing so, we often inadvertently increase our anxiety.
Turning to Food to Decrease Anxiety
Let's face it. Sometimes a Hostess cupcake just sounds better than a stalk of celery. Doritos are so much easier to crunch down than raw carrots. Anxiety doesn't exactly put us in the mood to cook. Fast food, fried foods, processed foods, sweets, sodas, coffee drinks, alcohol--things laden with high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils/trans fats, refined sugars, caffeine, and the like, are easy to obtain and often delightful to eat and drink. We turn to them because we think they'll make our anxiety decrease.
Unfortunately, food has an effect on our brains long after it leaves our mouth. It's becoming well known that diet contributes to things like diabetes, heart disease, and even some cancers. It's also being shown that certain foods, while they don't cause anxiety, they certainly contribute to and perpetuate it.
Why Some Foods Contribute to Anxiety
The above-mentioned foods and drinks wreak havoc on the body and brain.
- Many have little nutritional content, so we starve despite consuming calories.
- These foods can be hard to digest, so our body becomes bogged down in trying to process them; it's an unnecessary drain on our energy.
- Alcohol, coffee, and sodas are dehydrating; and dehydration has a very negative effect on the brain.
- These processed and otherwise unhealthy foods can throw our hormonal balance out of whack, contributing greatly to anxiety.
- Caffeine causes jitteriness and magnifies anxiety that is already present.
- Refined sugars break down quickly; not only do they flood our system, but they spike the presence of the stress hormone cortisol.
- After the sugar spike comes a crash, and with it comes anxiety and irritability.
- Many of these effects cause the very same physical symptoms associated with anxiety, so rather than comforting us and helping us feel better, we actually end up feeling worse.
It's Okay to Eat Food Good for Anxiety When You're Anxious
Wanting comfort food is a normal human desire. When we're conscious of what we're doing, not only is it okay to eat comfort foods, it's healthy and helpful. For all of the negative impact foods can have on our anxiety, other foods have the exact opposite effect (Nutrition Therapy for Anxiety). Foods can be nourishing and provide important nutrients we need to combat anxiety.
Foods high in vitamin B, for example, have been shown to soothe anxiety. Protein-rich foods are beneficial as well. Whole grains and other natural "whole" foods are other excellent choices for well-being.
Stock your cupboards and refrigerator with nuts, whole-grain breads and crackers, lean meats, eggs, fresh fruits, and vegetables, brown or wild rice, oatmeal, healthy cereal, and the like. There are also recipes for natural, whole-grain desserts that are great substitutes for Hostess.
Food doesn't cause anxiety, nor does it act alone to eradicate it. However, it most definitely does impact our physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety. Intentionally choosing what we eat and sticking to an anxiety-friendly diet can help diminish anxiety. That is a cause for a healthy celebration.
NCC, T. (2015, February 5). Is Your Comfort Food Making You Anxious?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 17 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2015/02/is-your-food-making-you-anxious
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
Thank you for your input and insights! It's great to be so fully aware of what foods you turn to and when. I notice the same patterns in my own life as you mention. You're so right about caffeinated beverages. We crave them when anxious, but they actually increase anxiety (I posted an article recently about caffeine and anxiety because it's such a common issue). Oh, and thanks a lot for making me want ice cream. :D