Anxiety and Nutrition, specifically Carbohydrates

What a strange combination? What have carbs got to do with anxiety?”

According to Harvard Medical School, natural foods rich in carbohydrates including whole grains, vegetables, legumes and fruit, are an essential element of a healthy and balanced diet but are also some of the best anti-anxiety foods. These foods are a good source of complex carbohydrates and fiber, provide a slow release of energy and are stable on blood sugar. But that’s not all, natural whole foods contain many other beneficial nutrients necessary for mental and physical health.

So, despite increased popularity of low carb and keto diets, carbs belong in your diet, and natural foods rich in carbs are very important foods for managing mental health.

What are Carbohydrates?

There are three types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches, and fiber.

  • Sugars are simple carbohydrates.
  • Starches and fiber are complex carbohydrates.
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Due to their simplicity, sugars absorb rapidly into the bloodstream and give a quick release of energy. But sugars (simple carbs) can affect blood sugar levels causing sudden spikes and dips. Low blood sugar can in turn affect anxiety levels. When your blood sugar drops suddenly, this signals hunger to the brain, which can activate the flight-or-fight response (stress response), causing irritability, nervousness, and other classic anxiety symptoms.

In contrast …

According to Harvard Medical School

Complex carbohydrates are metabolized more slowly and therefore help maintain a more even blood sugar level, which creates a calmer feeling.– Harvard Medical School

Carbohydrates are found in both natural (good carbs) and refined foods (bad carbs). Taking all of the above into account, the best source of carbohydrates for health and managing anxiety are natural foods high in complex carbohydrates.

How to Manage Anxiety with Carbs?

1. Choose The Best Source of Carbs 

If fruit and legumes are natural foods, a good source of carbohydrates and contain vitamins, minerals, and more why are they not the best source of carbs?

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2. Limit Fruit and Legumes

Fruit and legumes are healthy but while you can have whole grains and veggies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, fruit and legumes need to be limited.

  • Fruits are high in natural sugars and if consumed in large quantities can affect blood sugar levels. Two pieces of fruit a day is healthy and sufficient.
  • Legumes are a good source of protein and a great meat replacement for lunch or dinner. But since we need protein in relatively smaller quantities than carbohydrates, legumes should also be limited.

So, it’s still important to consume fruits and legumes as part of health eating, but the bulk of your calories need to come from vegetables and whole grains.

Get into the habit of using the glycemic index to check which vegetables are better for your blood sugar. The lower the glycemic index, the more stable the effect on blood sugar.

Examples of Good Carbs

Vegetables such as Acorn squash, Artichoke, Asparagus, Bok choy, Beans, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Butternut squash, Cabbage, Carrots, Cauliflower, Celery, Chives, Green, red, yellow pepper, Kale, Leek, Onions, Parsnip, Potato, Pumpkin, Radish, Spinach, Sweet potato, and others

Whole Grains such as Barley, Corn, Oats, Quinoa, Brown, red, black and wild rice

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Legumes such as Chickpeas, Lentils, Peas, Kidney Beans, Black Beans, Soybeans, Pinto Beans

Fruit such as Apple, Apricot, Banana, Blackberry, Blueberry, Cherry, Cranberry, Grape, Raisin, Grapefruit, Kiwi fruit, Mango, Melon, Cantaloupe, Watermelon, Nectarine, Papaya, Peach, Pear, Plum, Prune, Pineapple, Pomegranate, Raspberry, Strawberry

3. Avoid Bad Carbs

When plant-based foods are refined, we have refined carbohydrates. For example, whole wheat grain is refined to produce white flour. During this refinement process, wheat grain is stripped of fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and healthy fats, leaving behind only the starchy carbohydrate. Manufacturers also commonly use bleaching agents, additives, preservatives, colorings, flavorings, and other chemical ingredients which are bad for our health and can trigger anxiety. If foods are minimally refined, i.e. in the case of whole-wheat flour, then some of the nutrients are still retained. But foods such as pizza, cakes, chocolate, and similar are examples of heavily refined carbohydrates, and these are bad carbs.

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Bad carbs are poor in nutrients, can be very inflammatory, and should be avoided. Refined carbs are likely to impact blood sugar levels and anxiety levels, according to Harvard Medical School.

What are some of the side effects of consuming bad carbs? Due to the poor nutritional content and commonly added chemical ingredients and bleaching agents, refined carbs can cause or contribute to many health issues and chronic diseases. For example:

4. Become Good at Spotting Bad Carbs

Refined carbs are all sugars and starches excluding those in the form of natural whole foods. It might be easy for most of us to identify sugars because they taste sweet. Also, they usually come in the form of crystals, syrups, or powders. Refined starches such as refined grains, however, are a lot more confusing.

To help you, here are the main categories of refined carbohydrates:

  • REFINED SUGARS – Also referred to as added sugar. I.e. table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, fruit juice concentrate. Manufacturers add refined sugar to foods as a sweetener or as a preservative. They use over 90 different names for refined sugars.
  • FRUIT JUICES – Purchased juices go through a heavy industrial process.
  • ALL KINDS OF FLOUR  – Also, from any type of grain. I.e. wheat flour, rice, and corn flours. Note, whole meal flours are less refined and healthier.
  • INSTANT/REFINED GRAINS – including breakfast cereals, white rice, and instant rice.
  • REFINED STARCHES – i.e. corn starch, potato starch, modified food starch. Or any powdered ingredient with the word “starch” in it.
5. Adopt an Anti-Anxiety Diet

According to Harvard Medical School, introducing complex carbohydrates into your diet is a great way to manage anxiety. But it’s also important to consume balanced meals, stay hydrated, reduce caffeine, cut out processed foods, eat magnesium-rich foods, get enough omega 3 fatty acids and follow many other anti-anxiety diet techniques

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Good Nutrition to Lessen Anxiety

Most of us know the benefits of good nutrition but don’t always follow that plan. Here are some thoughts on what to do and what not to do:

Eat an antianxiety diet introducing more anti-anxiety foods as part of your self-care routine to better manage your anxiety. Healthy eating is beneficial for mental health, but it also helps to control sugar cravings. Eating complex carbohydrates such as vegetables and whole grains give a slow release of energy and are stable on blood sugar, helping to control your sugar cravings, and I know this from experience. I used to be seriously addicted to sugar and this was yet another bad habit that I had to break in an effort to manage my anxiety.

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Avoid the added detrimental additives or toxins. Conventional farming uses chemicals such as pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides which are toxins that your body needs to eliminate. Processed foods are loaded with additives, preservatives, colorings, flavorings and other chemicals that also cause a lot of extra work for your detox organs. Research shows that these types of toxins affect the central nervous system and can contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression disorders.

Some popular detox techniques include eating plenty of high fiber foods i.e., root vegetables and whole grains, Epsom salts baths, quality sleep, sweat in a sauna, and drinking at least two quarts of water daily.

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Eating a balanced, healthy meal. Research shows that nutrient deficiencies and poor diet are common in people with anxiety disorders. For example, essential nutrients such as B vitamins, Vitamin A and C, magnesium, zinc, iron and selenium, and omega 3 fatty acids are likely to be deficient. A healthy and balanced meal includes mainly carbohydrates (veggies and whole grains), in addition to heathy fats (nuts, seeds, cold pressed oils), healthy proteins (legumes, lean meats, and fish), vitamins and minerals (vegetables, whole grains, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, and herbs). Eating a diet like this, optimizes your intake of essential nutrients, required for both your body and mind to function properly.

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Eating too much sugar can cause or contribute to many health issues and chronic diseases, including mental health disorders. Studies show that overconsumption of sugar triggers imbalances in certain brain chemicals, that can potentially cause anxiety and depression or make its symptoms worse. Sugar gives a quick release of energy, followed by a sudden crash which results in more sugar cravings which is the opposite of our goals to reduce anxiety through proper nutrition.

The Integrative Wellness Circle

integrative wellness circle foodsThis group explored the potential healing powers of whole foods and nutrition. We delved into practices for a healthy lifestyle and came away with many resource options. The focus was a holistic approach to nutrition (how all parts affect the whole). It wasn’t so much about restrictions as the class was about flexibility for life-long adherence and making yourself healthier long term not just a short term diet. It was about individual choice for lasting nutritional change by figuring out the quality foods while exploring local growers’ produce and vegetables. In class, we explored how body type, relationship, spirituality, work, exercise, sleeping, and energy level affect our eating styles; balance in these areas equals our better food choices. In the end, we came away with online connections to keep us motivated and up to date on local nutritional offerings.

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