5 Types of Food to Avoid When You Have Anxiety, According to an RD

They may be comforting in the moment, but these eats can hurt rather than help your mental health—and here's why.


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Between regular workloads, busy school semesters, financial stress, and just trying to get dinner on the table, it's easy to feel stressed on the regular—and avoid doing anything to get it back under control.

While there are several things you can do to try to manage stress on a regular basis, you might not realize the foods you eat—or don't eat enough of—can play a large roll in the state of your mental health. There are tons of nourishing foods (and drinks) that support mood regulation and anxiety and stress reduction, especially those high in gut-healthy probiotics (you'd be surprised just how closely connected mental health and gut health are). But there are also certain foods that can exacerbate worry, distress, and overall mood dips, and our ability to handle incoming challenges and heavy feelings. These options are often tasty and convenient, but high in calories and low in nutrients, inflammatory to our systems, and disruptive to gut health, metabolic health, and more.

For a better sense of what not to eat (at least, not in excess) when trying to feel better, Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, shares some of the worst foods for anxiety and mood.

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Fast Food and Junk Food

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A 2019 study found that poor diet quality was linked to poor mental health, regardless of factors such as gender, age, education, marital status, and income level. The study showed that fried foods, foods high in added sugar, and refined grains (which are stripped of their natural fiber) were all associated with increases in depression. Another earlier study, published in 2013, found that individuals who consumed fast food were more likely to develop depression.

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High-Sugar Foods

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For how tasty it can be, sugar can play a surprisingly negative role in your mood and mental health. A 2019 study examining depression during the winter months found that consumption of sugar exacerbated depressive symptoms by increasing inflammation in the brain. This finding correlates with several other studies linking excess sugar, inflammation, and mood disorders.

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Low-Fiber Foods

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Low-fiber diets—lacking in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds—are associated with poor gut health. In turn, gut health is highly correlated with mental health outcomes. Multiple studies show that improvements in gut health (through nutrition) may help to improve overall gut health and can positively impact anxiety and depression.

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A 2013 study found that heavy drinkers had a rewiring of brain activity that made them more likely to have anxiety. Other studies in teens found that binge drinking increased future occurrence of depression and anxiety.

Ever heard of the term "hangxiety"? That's because drinking seems to spark a bit of anxiety in most people (and a lot of anxiety in others). Alcohol takes a toll on our systems in several ways. Primarily, it's very dehydrating, which can absolutely affect your mood and disrupt your metabolism (which can then further impact your mood as your body tries to regain balance). According to American Addiction Centers, "[a]lcohol can induce panic because of its effects on GABA, a chemical that normally has a relaxing effect. Mild amounts of alcohol can stimulate GABA and cause feelings of relaxation, but heavy drinking can deplete GABA, causing increased tension and feelings of panic."

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High (Saturated) Fat Foods

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It's important to note that most of the research linking high-fat diets to depression and anxiety has been conducted on mice. That said, there's a fair amount of convincing evidence that food high in unhealthy, saturated fats—like fatty cuts of beef and pork, lard, heavy cream, butter, cheese—should be enjoyed in moderation to keep anxiety at bay. Plus, many fatty foods fall into these other categories listed above—low in fiber, high in added sugars and/or sodium, and ultra-processed.

A 2015 animal study found that body weight and blood sugar changes caused by a high-fat diet caused changes in the brain that increased symptoms of anxiety and depression. Another animal study, published in 2017, found that pregnant primates that consumed a high-fat diet were more likely to produce offspring that developed depression and anxiety.

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