As many as 40 million American adults — or 18% of the population — live with an anxiety disorder. And during the pandemic, those numbers may be even higher; according to the American Psychological Association’s recent Stress in America report, nearly 1 in 5 adults say their mental health is worse than this time last year.
The connection between anxiety and what we eat is not yet fully understood, and more robust research in the field is needed. But some studies have shown that certain nutrients (such as zinc, magnesium, vitamin B and omega-3 fatty acids) and habits (such as eating balanced meals that keep your blood sugar in check) may have a positive effect on anxiety symptoms.
What you do in the morning sets the tone for the rest of your day — and that includes what you put on your plate. We asked experts which foods they recommend people with anxiety eat for breakfast to set them up for a calmer, healthier day ahead.
“Avocados are deliciously versatile and loaded with a bit of everything,” registered dietitian Maya Feller of Maya Feller Nutrition told HuffPost. Not only do they contain healthy fat and fiber, but they also contain micronutrients like vitamin B6 (which helps create neurotransmitters like serotonin that stabilize our mood) and magnesium (which helps regulate the body’s stress response).
If you’re in a hurry, Feller recommends mashing avocado slices on rustic bread with a dash of cumin, black pepper and kosher salt. If you have more time, she suggests filling half an avocado with an egg, baking until the whites are firm and topping it with hot sauce for an added kick.
When eating eggs, don’t ditch the yolks: that yellowy-orange center contains minerals like choline and zinc, which have been associated with lower anxiety levels. Conversely, a zinc deficiency has been “shown to induce depression-like and anxiety-like behaviors,” according to a 2010 scientific review.
Two eggs contain 12 grams of protein, which helps stabilize blood sugar. Avoiding a blood sugar spike and crash is key, as it causes the body to pump out hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can exacerbate anxiety symptoms.
Scrambled or sunny-side-up eggs may be your go-tos, but Feller suggests changing things up by making a breakfast quesadilla.
“[Use] a stone-ground corn tortilla, spinach, cheese, onion and tomato sprinkled with a touch of smoked paprika,” she said.
Another option? Shakshuka — a Mediterranean baked egg dish with tomato, herbs and vegetables.
“The tomatoes and herbs also provide fiber that’s great for the health of your microbiome and additional nutrients,” said Samantha Elkrief, a therapist, holistic health coach and chef.
“There is a link between the gut and the brain that continues to be researched,” Feller said. “Consuming foods that promote beneficial bacteria is thought to be supportive of both gut and brain health.”
For example, the vast majority of serotonin receptors are located in the lining of the gut. A deficiency in serotonin may lead to anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions, underscoring the importance of the gut-brain connection.
Opt for strained yogurt — i.e., the thicker kind, like Greek or Icelandic yogurt — that contains fat and more protein than regular yogurt to keep you satiated. Check the ingredients label for “live active cultures” — and “lactobacillus acidophilus” specifically — to ensure you’re getting those probiotic benefits.
“Try topping your bowl of yogurt with hulled hemp seeds, bee pollen, and pistachios, all of which are excellent sources of fiber and heart-healthy fats,” Feller said.
You could enjoy a savory breakfast of baked salmon and scrambled eggs, but if you like smoked salmon, that’s an option that’s available at most bagel shops.
“Salmon is anti-inflammatory and a good source of protein, too,” Elkrief said. “Pair with eggs for a healthy, hearty, nutrient-dense meal.”
Complex carbohydrates, like oats, are digested more slowly than simple carbohydrates, like pastries. They’ll keep you full while also helping you maintain that steady blood sugar curve.
“Not only are you starting your day with a hefty dose of micronutrients like calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and B6, but this fiber-rich dish will also help to keep you satiated longer and support level blood sugars throughout the day,” Feller said.
You can enjoy your oatmeal hot or cold, depending on what you’re in the mood for.
“Opt for chilled overnight oats with two tablespoons of chia seeds, cinnamon and choice of plant-based milk,” Feller said. “Or cozy up with a warm bowl of oats topped with almond butter, banana, cocoa nibs, and a soft dusting of cardamom.”
One way to get your vitamin C boost and a nutrient-dense meal to boot: Whip up a smoothie with berries, leafy greens (which contain magnesium), nut butter (for protein) and pumpkin seeds (for zinc), Elkrief recommended.
“The smoothie is rich in fiber and protein to help with maintaining steady blood sugar, all the ingredients are anti-inflammatory and you can add unsweetened yogurt or kefir for the additional benefits fermented foods provide to the microbiome and mood,” she said.
Foods That Could Make Anxiety Worse
You don’t have to banish these foods from your diet altogether. Enjoying them from time to time is just fine, but consider minimizing your intake.
Again, foods that cause that sharp blood sugar spike and subsequent crash are ones to avoid if you have anxiety. These include cereals and beverages high in added sugar and baked goods made from refined grains.
“Drastic drops in glucose levels often mirror symptoms of anxiety, so be mindful of the foods that cause these symptoms,” Feller said.
Plus, diets high in sugar tend to be less nutrient-dense, Elkrief said, “which means folks are missing out on the opportunity to eat foods that can support their brain health and mood.”
Coffee and energy drinks
The caffeine in these beverages can lead to restlessness and increased heart rate, which are also symptoms of anxiety. So they’re best consumed in moderation.
“Folks with anxiety are also more vulnerable to worsening symptoms from caffeine consumption,” Elkrief said. “Caffeine and energy drinks can also have a negative impact on sleep, which can worsen symptoms of anxiety.”
We all tolerate what we eat and drink differently, so some people may be more or less sensitive to the effects of caffeine or sugar. Figure out what works best for you.
“It’s important to remember that our experiences are unique and nothing happens in a vacuum, especially when it comes to nutrition,” Feller said. “We want to get to know our bodies so we can make choices that support our individual health.”