Foods to Help Anxiety: Eat This to Calm Your Nerves

Anxiety — and the exhausting, seemingly never-ending stress that comes with it — makes even the simplest tasks nearly impossible. It doesn’t help that every form of processed food looks and tastes more appealing when you can’t stop worrying. Why do you keep doing that?

Here’s why you sometimes (always?) eat junk food when your anxiety kicks in, the worst foods to eat when you’re anxious, and foods you can eat that might calm your nerves in the short-term.

Why you eat more when you’re anxious

Woman with open refrigerator

Woman with open refrigerator | djedzura/Getty Images

People tend to respond to anxiety in one of two ways when it comes to food. They either completely lose their appetites, or they can’t seem to stop eating.

Anxiety is a form of stress. Because your body doesn’t know the difference between a-bear-is-chasing-me-in-a-forest stress and I-don’t-like-making-small-talk-at-parties stress, your fight-or-flight response kicks even. Even if there’s no bear. This response increases the production of a hormone called cortisol. We’ll just call it “the stress hormone.”

Stress hormones basically make some people want to eat everything they probably shouldn’t. That might seem fine after the first potato chip. Not so much after all the chips have disappeared (into your mouth).

The problem is, many of the foods you might reach for when you’re anxious are actually making you more anxious. It’s an endless cycle of nervousness. But you have the power to stop it.

Foods that increase anxiety

Food doesn’t necessarily cause anxiety. But certain types of food can have a negative impact on your mental health when you’re already feeling anxious.

There is some evidence that consuming added sugars might increase feelings of anxiety in some animals. Though researchers are still working on testing that theory on a larger scale in humans, it can’t hurt to minimize the number of high-sugar foods you eat on a daily basis. Diets high in sugar might cause plenty of other health problems.

Common foods loaded with added sugars include:

  • White pasta, white rice, and white bread
  • Junk foods and desserts
  • Certain breakfast cereals
  • Condiments such as ketchup and some salad dressings
  • Some canned foods such as canned beans and fruit.

It’s tempting to reach for the pre-made stuff in easy-to-frantically-tear-open boxes and packaging because you want that relief, and you want it fast. Unfortunately, these foods won’t provide the sense of calm you’re looking for. It’s possible different foods might.

Foods that calm nerves: What to eat to relieve anxiety

Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate | iStock.com/OlgaLepeshkina

If you’re feeling anxious, it’s probably best to avoid the above foods, since they might make your symptoms worse. But that’s not all you can do to feel better. Replacing your go-to “anxiety” foods with different options might make a big difference.

Next time you need something to munch on to calm your nerves, try eating:

  • Yogurt
  • Salmon
  • Dark chocolate (just a small amount)
  • Almonds and chia seeds
  • Eggs and minimally processed meats (not bacon or deli meats)

Many of these foods contain high-quality protein, which aids in the production of dopamine and serotonin. Both of these chemicals can improve overall mental health. But they also provide other benefits that can help you maintain physical health and possibly improve how you feel.

Instead of reaching for the chips, at least try a handful of almonds or a hardboiled egg instead. It’s not the same. But it might change everything for the better.