Why You Should Take Any Advice About Foods That Reduce Anxiety And Depression With A Grain Of Salt
Foods you eat play a role in overall well-being. No newsflash there! But does what you eat affect mental health? And if so, how? Common beliefs certainly suggest a link between nutrition and mental health. But, there’s actually little scientific evidence for nutritional advice on mental health issues. That’s why you should take any advice about foods that reduce anxiety and depression with a grain of salt.
Nonetheless, most of us generally believe that nutrition advice for mental health is scientifically based.
However, there is research supporting an association between certain foods’ effects on anxiety and depression, as well as on mental health in general.
There’s also evidence that contradicts those findings.
Ugh! So what’s true?
Several studies have reported a strong correlation between a healthy diet and mental well-being.
The association between certain foods and well being provides recommendations for eating. For example, eating fresh fruits and vegetables is associated with higher levels of general mental health and well-being. Which is not to say that eating specific fruits and vegetables, or a certain amount of them, will decrease anxiety and depression.
It’s difficult to prove specific foods affect mental health.
The way studies are designed and conducted does not and can not prove that certain foods reduce anxiety and depression. Determining if and how dietary changes may help improve mental health is very difficult. Association is not the same as saying something is caused by something else.
Scientists know that “correlation doesn’t prove causation“. Meaning just because two things seem to go together doesn’t mean one causes the other.
But that doesn’t stop marketing efforts.
Google search “foods that reduce anxiety”, and you will get 53, 100, 000 search results. Search “foods that reduce depression”, and 13, 700, 000 results pop up. For foods that reduce anxiety and depression, there are “only” 8,100,000 Google search results.
Tagline: Don’t believe everything you read. Especially if money is involved. (Which it usually is.)
The brain is complex. It’s always “on”.
The brain’s main source of energy is from the food we eat.
So, yes, we can say with certainty that the brain and food are relevant when talking about mental health.
Food is the body and mind’s lifeblood.
What we eat provides fuel, nourishment, and pleasure. It can even boost happy hormones like serotonin.
So many variables influence brain function and gut health, which in turn affect mental health and behavior. Food is one of those variables – and an important one.
So, yes. There are in fact foods that can provide mood-boosting and anxiety reducing benefits.
But, that does not mean you’re better off only consuming or only avoiding certain foods. (Unless of course due to a medical condition like Crohn’s or Celiac Disease, you must avoid certain foods.)
Or that all foods impact all brains in one way.
A lot of recommendations for eating foods to reduce anxiety and depression come straight out of the Wellness Diet, which is from Diet Culture.
The Wellness Diet promises that the “right” food choices will improve mental and physical health.
It’s all about including ‘pure’ foods and excluding ‘impure’ foods in the name of health.
“Clean eating,” is part of The Wellness Diet. It requires vigilance about what foods we eat. That kind of rigidity around what and when to eat is unlikely to reduce anxiety and depression!
Too much emphasis on day-to-day food choices doesn’t reduce anxiety and depression or lead to improved health. It can however easily lead to a preoccupation with food. And result in emotional distress.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. An estimated 20% of the population suffers from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. About half of people with depression also experience anxiety.
Certain psychotherapies and medications can help relieve anxiety, but only about a third of people suffering from an anxiety disorder seek treatment.
Eating foods to help reduce anxiety would be a relatively easy step that could make a meaningful difference. ,
So what is an example of foods to reduce anxiety?
A biggie is complex carbohydrates (sorry, not sorry, Wellness Diet!)
Carbohydrates are the brain’s and body’s main source of energy. They metabolize slowly and help maintain blood sugar levels, which is associated with feeling calmer.
Thinking and learning are closely linked to glucose levels and how efficiently the brain uses fuel. Neither the brain nor the body function well without enough fuel.
But that’s different from saying carbohydrates diminish anxiety and depression.
Depression is a common and serious mood disorder. Its symptoms affect your feelings and thoughts, and how you manage daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working.
Depression is common in this country. An estimated 21.0 million adults in this country had one or more major depressive episode in 2020 (the most recent data available).
An often cited study about food and depression is a 2013 meta-analysis . The basic findings? There is an association between adherence to a Mediterranean diet and (decreased) risk of stroke, depression, cognitive impairment, and Parkinson’s disease.
A more recent study of dietary patterns and depression risk also suggest that an emphasis on eating certain types of food may decrease depression risk. More specifically, eating fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy, and antioxidants and minimizing animal foods was associated with a decreased risk of depression. A diet of processed meats, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter, potatoes and high-fat gravy was associated with an increased risk of depression.
Again, notice the word “associated.” Adhering to the Mediterranean diet or any diet for that matter does not mean depression will definitively diminish.
Recommendations about foods and reduced anxiety and depression
Most of us assume certain foods (fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy, antioxidants, low intake of animal foods) are linked to a decreased risk of depression. Or that processed meat, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter, and a low intake of fruits and vegetables may be associated with an increased risk of anxiety and depression. This may be true. Or not. We really don’t know for certain if there are foods (or some combination thereof) that reduce anxiety and depression.
Other variables need to be considered in nutrition and mental health research and practice. These include culture, country, access to care, food supply, education, income, body weight, and age.
Be curious about what kinds of foods are best for you by
- paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel.
- avoiding categorizing food as good or bad.
- assessing satisfaction and pleasure from eating as an important consideration of food’s effect on mood.
- experimenting with different macros, nutrients, and foods. Notice if any reduce anxiety and depression for YOU.
A scientific evaluation to determine if there are foods that reduce anxiety and depression will need to include complicated scientific variables. Things like biomarkers, brain metabolism, gut hormones, gut-brain communication, neural genetics, nutritional needs, metabolic health, and intake bioavailability.
My literature research suggests there are no such studies, yet. Which is why the best we can say is that there is an association between eating certain foods and reduced anxiety and depression.
Keep in mind: Satisfaction and pleasure are important and bestow their own benefits.
Lack of either isn’t good for your health. If you settle for food or for eating experiences that are sub-par, you will long for more. You’re apt to eventually find yourself eating in ways that make you feel much worse about yourself.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me repeat: How dietary changes may improve mental health is difficult to determine. In randomized controlled research, people in the study know if they’re part of the group assigned to eat “healthy” foods. We know from research that when you tell people they’re doing something that may make them less depressed, they’ll indeed report less depression. (Hello, placebo effect.) Unlike in a study of medication, in a dietary study there’s no way to “blind” the participants so that they don’t know if they’re getting the “medicine” or the “placebo.”
However, while certain foods may be important to mood and mental health, it’s unlikely food is a magic bullet for reducing anxiety and depression.
When people make efforts to care for themselves, mental health tends to improve. By adhering to a belief system they feel aligned with, mental health also improves.
Factors beyond diet are important. These include physical activity, sleep, exercise, exposure to nature. This is more of an integrative approach.
So are there foods you can eat that reduce anxiety and depression? Do your own investigation and let me know. And please invite pleasure and satisfaction to your plate!
(Also keep in mind that choices about what, how much, and when to eat exist only for people with privilege. They have access to food and can afford to buy it. Not everyone does.)