Hey folks, Board-Certified Health Coach Chloe Maleski is here to answer your questions about what to eat (and what to avoid) when you’re feeling anxious. Struggle with stress, anxiety, or overwhelm? We’re here with guidance and support! Have a question you’d like to ask our health coaches? Leave it below in the comments or over in the Mark’s Daily Apple Facebook group.
“I have really bad anxiety. Are there foods that can help? Any other ideas that don’t involve popping pills? I’m trying to take a natural approach but all the advice out there and people selling ‘solutions’ leave me more stressed. Thanks!”
Sorry to hear you’re struggling, Max! You’re not alone in dealing with anxiety or in feeling overwhelmed by all the information, advice, and “solutions” out there.
Good for you for exploring holistic options and recognizing that food can be helpful (or harmful) when it comes to mental health. This makes complete sense, after all! The food we eat is literally how we constitute ourselves, and there is no separation between body and mind. Traditional healing modalities have known this for thousands of years, and modern research in fields such as epigenetics and neuroplasticity offers an abundance of evidence!
If you’re suffering from a serious mental health condition, you should consult a trained medical professional or therapist if that’s accessible to you. These days, more and more healthcare professionals are practicing functional medicine and taking a holistic approach.
Meanwhile, there are certainly things you can do on your own. Regardless of whether you seek additional support, eating and lifestyle patterns play a pivotal role in how we feel in body and mind.
As a Primal Health Coach, I work with many clients who struggle with feelings of anxiety, stress, and overwhelm. These days, the person who doesn’t encounter those is the exception!
Let’s start with foods that contribute to anxiety…then look at foods that help.
Foods that Make Anxiety Worse
You probably already have a good idea which foods tend to make you feel more anxious, but here are six common culprits:
If you’re a regular at Mark’s Daily Apple, the first four probably aren’t surprising! When we consume foods that disrupt our body’s natural signaling system and contribute to chronic inflammation, this puts stress on our entire body-mind ecology.
Even for folks without conscious awareness around this, eating foods that aren’t healthy or supportive feels “off” on some level and contributes to subconscious unease. The body always knows!
Coffee and alcohol warrant special mention here, because neither is considered off limits within Primal parameters. Indeed, I have many clients who eat Primal 100 percent of the time but way overdo coffee and/or alcohol intake—and feel the impact.
Most people are aware of coffee’s energizing effects—that’s one reason they drink it! Along with a burst in energy, it causes a spike in stress hormones and may interfere with the ability to modulate cortisol levels 1 Drinking it in the afternoon also interferes with quality sleep later on (even if the person drinking it thinks they sleep fine).2 Lack of quality sleep contributes to further hormonal disruption, systemic inflammation, and chronic stress; has a direct impact on emotions and mood; and often leads to drinking more caffeine—taxing the body and mind and fueling an unhelpful cycle.
This isn’t to say you have to cut coffee or caffeine entirely, but reducing your intake and not drinking it immediately upon waking or too late in the day is especially important during periods of stress or anxiety. Even switching to lower caffeine green tea can be helpful.3
On the opposite side of the spectrum, many people consume alcohol to “take the edge off.” Problem is, that works for the first 30 minutes—that’s it! The body is the ultimate compensator and will balance out the artificially induced surge in feel-good hormones by releasing more stress hormones. Have you ever awoken with anxiety and restlessness around 3 a.m. after drinking alcohol with dinner? This is probably why!
Again, this doesn’t mean you have to give up alcohol completely. Just know that drinking is very likely to make anxiety worse.4 If you do choose to partake, keep it minimal and don’t drink too close to bedtime. Similar to coffee, alcohol also has a hugely detrimental impact on sleep, even if consumed in small or moderate amounts.5
Unfortunately, many folks tend to consume MORE of the above during stressful, anxious times rather than less. This is because they hold the promise of momentary relief, similar to “comfort eating”. Problem is, that relief is fleeting and they leave us feeling worse!
This then feeds a vicious loop, where we’re stressed and anxious… seek temporary comfort… only to feel even worse… and seek more comfort from things that will exacerbate the problem. It’s a bad cycle on repeat, and breaking out of it can feel really hard or even impossible.
Good news is, food also has the potential to do the opposite! Meaning, it can bring real, lasting relief and can help us leave that painful cycle behind. We just need to know what to avoid and what to choose instead. Let’s take a look.
Foods that Help with Anxiety
For many people, eating a Primal diet will already go far in quieting anxiety and reducing stress. When we nourish our body with real, whole foods, it can thrive instead of just survive.
If you need a refresher on Primal eating, start here. There’s an abundance of healthy options out there, and no real need to choose foods that make us feel worse. Beyond that, here’s an “anti-anxiety” starting place:
Eat real, whole food cooked simply.
Use fresh ingredients (bonus if they’re local or homegrown!).
Experiment with mocktails featuring healthy, Primal ingredients.
Practice calming eating habits, such as taking five deep breaths or a walk before reaching for comfort food, taking a moment of stillness and gratitude before meals, going slow, savoring each bite, and not overeating. Which leads us to…
Anxiety & Lifestyle
Remember that Primal eating is just one aspect of the 10 Primal Blueprint Laws. When I work with coaching clients, I not only consider what they’re eating but how they’re eating and how they’re spending the rest of their lives!
Eating quickly, eating on the go, overeating, and eating while watching, reading, or discussing something stressful is NEVER helpful when it comes to reducing anxiety. As best you can, make sure to eat slowly and mindfully. Also make sure to eat while seated, and take a breather from stressful topics. They’ll be waiting when you’re done, and you’ll be better resourced to deal with them!
These practices have a huge impact on our body, mind, and emotions. If you’re eating Primally, limiting or avoiding caffeine and alcohol, and still suffering from anxiety, look there.
Anti-anxiety Game Plan
Since you’re here at Mark’s Daily Apple, none of the above is probably news! Sometimes knowing what will help can actually contribute to anxiety due “cognitive dissonance.”
This is when part of you knows what you want and need to do… but you’re doing something different. The result is subconscious or conscious tension and stress—as though you’re carrying the weight of knowing and the weight of your choices, so can never fully relax.
Even recognizing this already changes things. We can’t take back awareness, and our body and mind truly do want to move towards what feels better.
Rather than shaming or blaming yourself, remember that some part of you is trying make yourself feel comforted. Thank that part of yourself, while gently letting it know its “suggestions” aren’t helping. Then ask:
How long will the relief from unhelpful foods last?
How will I feel in an hour? When trying to fall asleep tonight? Tomorrow morning?
What might I do 10 percent less of when it comes to food and eating?
What might I do 10 percent more of as an alternative that will bring more ease?
Ask these questions from a place of honesty and compassion. There’s no judgement—just curiosity, investigation, and awareness. Give yourself space to really check in with what you’re feeling, what will make it worse, and what will make it better.
Our body is on our side, and making supportive swaps (even 10 percent of the time) does wonders. Plus, when we feel good from a thing, we naturally want more! Start with 10 percent, and watch how that grows.
For many people, reducing stress and anxiety can be as simple as shifting to a Primal diet, slowing down, and getting enough sleep, sun, and movement.
That said, simple doesn’t mean easy! Having someone to lean into can reduce the stress of figuring everything out yourself and carrying through on your intentions. For skillful, compassionate backup, consider working with a Primal Health Coach primalhealthcoach.com! Visit myprimalcoach.com to get started.
Do you struggle with anxiety, stress, or overwhelm? Do certain foods or habits help or hurt? Let us know and drop other questions for me in the comments!
Chloe Maleski is a board-certified Primal Health Coach and personal trainer with a Bachelor’s degree from Duke University and a Master’s in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University. She is also the Head Coach at myPrimalCoach, the premier online health coaching service designed to help you lose weight and take control of your health for life.
If you want to lose weight, gain strength and energy, sleep better, reduce stress, or manage chronic health conditions, myPrimalCoach can help. Take the myPrimalCoach health questionnaire to take the first step toward lasting health and wellness.