If you have had a bad start to your day or things have gone wrong during the week, you may be familiar with the symptoms of anxiety creeping up on you. You might feel tight in the chest or experience a panicky feeling. Or you might feel scared, tense or irritated; anxiety manifests itself in lots of ways. Regardless of how it affects you, you might be tempted to calm and soothe yourself by reaching for comfort foods even though you know you probably shouldn’t. So is it possible to eat well when you’re anxious? How do you care for yourself when you experience anxiety?
Why is it Hard to Eat Well When You’re Anxious?
When we are not stressed or anxious, it’s easier to focus on making healthy food choices and looking after our bodies. But when we begin to suffer from anxiety, it’s much harder to think about choosing a bottle of water or veggies for a snack instead of something gooey, crunchy, delicious and oh-so-bad for us. Why is it so hard to eat well when you’re anxious?
The Sensory Pleasure of Eating
Researchers have tracked down the reason we enjoy some foods so much that they become addictive. There are two main factors: The sensation of eating the food and the nutritional makeup of our favourite snack.
The sensation of eating the food relates to the pleasure we get from the taste, the texture or feeling of eating it, and the smell. The nutrient makeup of the food refers to the blend of carbohydrates, fats and proteins in the food. Junk food tricks the brain into thinking that it has found a good source of energy but because we don’t get full easily, we crave more of it. Junk food has the perfect combination of taste, texture and dynamic contrast to get us hooked and coming back for more.
Anxiety Creates Cravings
When we get stressed or anxious, our brains release chemicals such as opiates and neuropeptide Y. These chemicals cause a response similar to the cravings we get from eating foods that are high in carbohydrates and fats so the most natural response in the world is to reach for the junk food. We crave high-fat or sugar-dense comfort foods because our brains are undergoing a stress response that creates cravings for these things. It’s hard to eat well when you’re anxious because your brain chemistry is working against your knowledge that you can make better choices.
You can Choose to Eat Well when You’re Anxious
Although it might be more difficult to eat well when you’re anxious, you can be prepared ahead of time, especially if you know that certain situations or periods of time tend to make you more anxious. You can stock up on healthy snacks, prepare healthy meals in advance and make a decision ahead of time that the next time anxiety strikes, you will be ready to make good choices.
Foods that Help with Anxiety
Some people find that certain foods help their moods and anxiety levels. These foods provide many of the vital nutrients for good brain function and can boost feelings of calmness and well-being. Instead of reaching for the junk food when anxiety strikes, why not try some of these foods?
These are high in omega-3, which is crucial for regulating neurotransmitters and also helps to reduce inflammation.
Egg yolks are a good source of vitamin D, protein and tryptophan. This amino acid helps to create serotonin, a mood-balancing chemical.
Pumpkin seeds are full of zinc and potassium, both important minerals for brain health.
Brazil nuts are rich in selenium, which helps to improve moods by reducing inflammation in the body.
Although there is still some debate over whether dark chocolate really does help with anxiety or moods, we do know that it is high in tryptophan and magnesium, both important for brain function.
Adults Need Care, Too!
Although your focus might be on caring for a child or young person with anxiety, it’s important not to neglect yourself. Anxiety is a real issue for adults as well as kids, but parents often push it aside to focus on their child’s needs. I want to challenge you today to take a deep breath, step back for a moment, and focus on caring for your own health and well-being. It’s possible to eat well when you’re anxious and in the future, you won’t be sorry that you have taken care of yourself.
PS Check out my new book, Teaching Kids to Manage Anxiety. It has some great strategies that you can use for yourself as well as your kids!