Dr. Uma Naidoo is a Harvard trained Nutritional Psychiatrist, professional chef, and nutritional biologist, and author of the bestselling This is Your Brain on Food. Her new book, Calm Your Mind with Food, is available for pre-order now.
Foods to avoid to help calm the mind
Are you looking to calm your mind? You may need to look no further than what’s on your plate!
Stress is a normal and healthy reaction to the challenges we face day to day, but it can be unhealthy when stress becomes chronic and excessive. Regularly having extreme feelings of fear or worry that leads to unhealthy habits or health outcomes is considered anxiety that warrants attention. In Nutritional Psychiatry, addressing symptoms of anxiety through strategic food choices is key for improving gut health and calming the mind. The foods we eat play a key role in reducing or exacerbating anxiety via the gut brain connection.
The gut brain connection highlights the interconnectivity of these two organs, indicating that the gut and the brain are in constant two-way communication and the health of one directly influences the health of the other. The gut microbes, specifically, are a key determinant of anxiety symptoms. When inflammation is present in the gut, we see inflammation in the brain as well. This is called neuroinflammation. Research tells us that neuroinflammation is increased in those with anxiety, so in my practice I recommend that those looking to reduce symptoms of stress need to avoid inflammatory foods.
The foods I recommended avoiding in order to calm the mind are as follows:
- Processed Foods: processed packaged foods that we find on grocery store shelves with lengthy ingredient lists and expiration dates are typically packed with processed additives like sugar, and omega-6 fatty acids, which both feed the bad microbes in the gut and exacerbate inflammation. These foods also tend to be devoid of brain healthy vitamins, micronutrients and fiber. I always recommend that individuals fill their shopping carts with nutrient dense whole foods like fresh or frozen vegetables and clean proteins before these processed items. The center aisles are great for budget friendly dried beans, lentils, legumes, canned wild salmon, oysters or mussels, organic beans and chickpeas but shopping the perimeter of your grocery stores is a great hack for filling up on brain healthy items.
- Added & Refined Sugars: did you know that there are about 262 other names for the sneaky sugars found in food items today? While you expect these to be found in cakes, pastries and baked goods, boxed cereals and granola bars, you don’t think of sugar in ketchup, salad dressings or even pasta sauce. Sugars can also be found in more savory items like fast food french fries! The hyper palatability of these foods may initially please taste buds, but they ultimately are detrimental to the microbiome, exacerbate inflammation, and overwhelm the body with more sugar than it needs, which can throw off blood sugar levels and increase anxiety. Because sugar is a substance that has an addictive effect, the less we eat over time the less we will crave. However, for those really looking for a sweet, I recommend reaching for a handful of blueberries or a square of extra dark natural chocolate!
- Industrial Oils: the industrialization of the food industry has led to the development of highly processed, inexpensive, oils created from the byproduct of the system’s most abundantly grown crops including corn, grapeseed, soybean, sunflower and palm oil. Through processing, these oils become incredibly high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, and ultimately devoid of anti-inflammatory omega-3. Excess omega-6 fatty acids in the diet contribute to an excess of inflammatory molecules throughout the body, especially in the gut and brain. Such oils can be avoided by reducing one’s intake of packaged and fast foods, and by choosing anti-inflammatory alternatives like extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings, or avocado oil when cooking.
- Artificial sweeteners are added to foods and beverages and marketed as low or sugar free options that may be regarded by many as “healthier options” but research has shown that people who consume artificial sweeteners, mostly via diet drinks, are more depressed than those who don’t consume such beverages. Also, several studies have demonstrated that artificial sweeteners can be toxic to the brain, altering brain concentrations of mood-regulating neurotransmitters.
- Alcohol: While alcohol can worsen anxiety it does not have the same effect on everyone. A general guidance here is if you consume alcohol do so in moderation and pay attention to how alcohol makes you feel (I call this following your body intelligence). If you feel jittery or anxious, then alcohol is not for you. Be aware that alcohol has other impacts on your physical health If you consume alcohol – then drink clean cocktails with no added syrup, sugar and added juices or liquers.
- Caffeine: Coffee can worsen anxiety so this is a matter of preference and how coffee makes you feel. Again paying attention to body intelligence is key. If you enjoy coffee, drink it with minimal added ingredients.
When it comes to anxiety-triggering foods, ‘Follow Your Body Intelligence’!
While the above foods are all linked to inflammation of the gut and brain, the extent to which individuals will experience symptoms vary. Because each person’s microbiome is unique, no two people react to foods exactly the same. Therefore, foods that may induce anxiety for some, may not have such stressful effects on others. I encourage individuals to be mindful when it comes to eating, acknowledge how different foods make them feel, and then choose accordingly. Pay attention to your mental health symptoms in response to various foods and use this body intelligence to guide you.
Focusing the diet on wholesome, fiber and nutrient rich plant foods with plenty of healthy fats and clean proteins supports reduced levels of inflammation and stress. Fiber is your friend when it comes to anxiety. It is a vital nutrient for the gut microbes and comes from foods like vegetables, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Fiber rich foods digest more slowly and help to keep both your blood sugar and emotions even keel. Empowerment with this knowledge, and a careful consideration of one’s body intelligence is key for choosing foods that will help calm the mind.