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Foods for Anxiety: What to Eat and Why

Foods for Anxiety: What to Eat and Why

In all the attention I’ve paid to anxiety-minimizing things in recent years, I’m sorry to say eating foods for anxiety has been close to the bottom of the list. The thing is, I’ve never been one of those people who notices much of a difference in how I feel because of what I eat. (Except for too much caffeine or chocolate cake for breakfast; sadly, that difference cannot be ignored.)

For instance, I’m not vegan anymore, but when I was the first thing most people would ask is if I noticed a difference in how I felt. I wanted to say yes, and knew other vegans who felt a lot better, but I wasn’t one of them. I’d stopped eating meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy and, as far as I could tell, my body felt exactly the same.

I’m not saying there is no difference in how I feel depending on what I eat, only that I tend to attribute the way I feel to anything but food.

Anxiety is no exception.

I tend to blame too much – or not enough – of a lot of things for my anxiety. Too much work, negative thinking, overthinking, irrational fears. Not enough sleep, yoga, journaling, down time, or meditation. Not to mention all the reasons women may be particularly susceptible to anxiety.

But after looking closely at the link between nutrition and anxiety, the connection is one that shouldn’t be discounted. Whether I recognize it or not, the presence (or absence) of key vitamins and minerals in my body could very well be contributing to my anxiety.

Just to be clear, I am not a nutritionist and there is no guarantee that eating these foods for anxiety will improve the way you feel. Also, none of the information included here should replace the advice of a medical professional. That said, I’ve done a ton of research and cited everything thoroughly.

About My Research

In my research of foods for anxiety, eight vitamins and minerals stood out as particularly important in anxiety management:

  • B1 (thiamine)
  • B2 (riboflavin)
  • B6 (pyridoxine)
  • B9 (folate)
  • B12 (cobalamin)
  • Vitamin C
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium

This information comes from three main sources, which are cited throughout the post:

I’ve organized this information in two ways:

  • My own picks for the top 20 foods for anxiety (based on my own criteria outlined below)
  • Foods for anxiety categorized by vitamin and mineral content

Foods for anxiety: My top 20

As you dig deeper into this post, you’ll see there is quite a variety of foods for anxiety to incorporate into your diet. So many, in fact, that it might feel a little overwhelming. To make it more manageable, I came up with a top 20 you might want to focus on first.

For foods to make this list, they had to:

  • Contain more than one of the vitamins or minerals that might help with anxiety
  • Contain 10 percent or more of the daily recommended allowance of these vitamins or minerals
  • Be foods that naturally contain these vitamins and minerals (i.e., not fortified or enriched, though you will see these foods in the next section organized by vitamins and minerals)

Here are the foods for anxiety that made my top 20 cut, including that food’s key vitamin and mineral content relative to anxiety:

Vegetables

  1. Broccoli (B9, vitamin C)
  2. Brussels sprouts (B9, vitamin C)
  3. Green peas (B9, vitamin C)
  4. Potatoes (B6, vitamin C, magnesium)
  5. Spinach (B9, vitamin C, magnesium)

Fruit

  1. Avocados (B9, magnesium)
  2. Orange juice (vitamin C, calcium)

Nuts

  1. Almonds (B2, magnesium)
  2. Peanuts (B9, magnesium)

Dairy

  1. Cottage cheese (B6, calcium)
  2. Milk (B2, B12, calcium)
  3. Swiss cheese (B2, B12, calcium)
  4. Yogurt (B2, B12, calcium, magnesium)

Fish and shellfish

  1. Clams (B2, B12)
  2. Salmon (B2, B6, B12, calcium)
  3. Trout (B1, B12)

Meat and poultry

  1. Beef liver (B2, B6, B9, B12)
  2. Chicken breast (B2, B6)

Other

  1. Black beans (B1, magnesium)
  2. Eggs (B2, B12)

Foods for anxiety categorized by vitamin and mineral

Again, my research on foods for anxiety turned up eight vitamins and minerals particularly important to anxiety management — five B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium.

A few things about these food lists:

1) I’ve indicated when eating a food raw or cooked makes a difference to vitamin or mineral content.

2) These lists contain several fortified and enriched foods. If they’re fortified, it means vitamins and minerals were added that weren’t there before. If they’re enriched, it means vitamins and minerals were added that were lost during food processing.

If you’re wondering whether our bodies properly absorb the nutrients in fortified and enriched foods, this article says they do.

Keep in mind, though, this article warns that heavily fortified foods can overload you with folate (B9). However, that’s only if that food contains a full day’s allowance of folate, so look for products that contain less (i.e., fortified breakfast cereals with 25 percent daily value of folate).

3) I’ve included foods that contain 10 percent or more of these vitamins and minerals. Use the links to see longer, more comprehensive lists.

Feel free to just scan this section for the food lists, but if you have the time, I hope you’ll read up on why these vitamins and minerals are so helpful.

For instance, I don’t love chickpeas. I’d probably eat more just knowing that I should. But I’m a lot more likely to eat them knowing they’re super rich in B6, which helps produce mood-enhancing serotonin and norepinephrine.

There are similarly-motivating facts about all of the other foods for anxiety in these lists. Best of all, chances are good that for every vitamin and mineral, you’ll see foods you already eat and love.

B Vitamins

“The B vitamins are necessary to help maintain the proper functioning of the nervous system. Deficiencies, especially of vitamin B1, B2, B6, and B12, can lead to anxiety, irritability, restlessness, fatigue, and even emotional instability.” ~Dr. Edmund J. Bourne, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook1

Vitamin B1 (thiamine)

Thiamine is sometimes called an ‘anti-stress’ vitamin because it may strengthen the immune system and improve the body’s ability to withstand stressful conditions.” ~University of Maryland Medical Center

Recommended Dietary Allowance of B1

  • Girls 14-18: 1 mg
  • Women 19+: 1.1 mg
  • When pregnant: 1.4 mg
  • When breastfeeding: 1.4 mg

Good B1 food sources*

  • Acorn squash
  • Black beans
  • Bluefin tuna
  • Breakfast cereals (fortified)
  • English muffins (enriched)
  • Egg noodles (enriched)
  • Mussels
  • Pork chops
  • Trout
  • White rice (enriched)
  • Whole wheat macaroni (enriched)

*One serving of these foods provides 10 percent or more of the recommended daily value. See the National Institutes of Health for a longer list of selected B1 foods (as well as serving sizes and daily value percentages).

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)

Riboflavin helps change vitamins B6 and B9 (folate) into forms your body can use. This can help with anxiety because both B6 and folate play a role in enhancing your mood.

Recommended Dietary Allowance of B2

  • Girls 14-18: 1 mg
  • Women 19+: 1.1 mg
  • When pregnant: 1.4 mg
  • When breastfeeding: 1.6 mg

Good B2 food sources*

  • Almonds
  • Bagels (enriched)
  • Beef liver
  • Beef tenderloin
  • Breakfast cereals (fortified)
  • Chicken breast
  • Clams
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Oats (fortified)
  • Portabella mushrooms
  • Quinoa
  • Salmon
  • Swiss cheese
  • Yogurt

*One serving of these foods provides 10 percent or more of the recommended daily value. See the National Institutes of Health for a longer list of selected B2 foods (as well as serving sizes and daily value percentages).

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

Vitamin B6 helps the body produce mood-enhancing serotonin and norepinephrine. These are the same chemicals that are affected by medication commonly prescribed for anxiety and depression – SNRIs, or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors.

Recommended Dietary Allowance of B6

  • Girls 14-18: 1.2 mg
  • Women 19-50: 1.3 mg
  • Women 51+: 1.5 mg
  • When pregnant: 1.9 mg
  • When breastfeeding: 2.0 mg

Good B6 food sources*

  • Bananas
  • Bulgur
  • Chickpeas
  • Cottage cheese
  • Beef liver
  • Breakfast cereals (fortified)
  • Chicken breast
  • Ground beef
  • Marinara sauce
  • Potatoes
  • Salmon
  • Turkey
  • Winter squash
  • Yellowfin tuna

*One serving of these foods provides 10 percent or more of the recommended daily value. See the National Institutes of Health for a longer list of selected B6 foods (as well as serving sizes and daily value percentages).

Vitamin B9 (folate)

Folic acid [or folate] is crucial for proper brain function and plays an important role in mental and emotional health.” ~University of Maryland Medical Center

Recommended Dietary Allowance of B9

  • Girls 14-18: 400 mcg
  • Women 19+: 400 mcg
  • When pregnant: 600 mcg
  • When breastfeeding: 500 mcg

Good B9 food sources*

  • Asparagus
  • Avocados
  • Beef liver
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Breakfast cereals (fortified)
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Green peas
  • Kidney beans
  • Mustard greens
  • Peanuts
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Spaghetti noodles (enriched)
  • Spinach (raw or cooked)
  • Wheat germ
  • White bread
  • White rice

*One serving of these foods provides 10 percent or more of the recommended daily value. See the National Institutes of Health for a longer list of selected B9 foods (as well as serving sizes and daily value percentages).

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)

B12 works with B9 (folate) to produce S-adenosylmethionine, or SAMe, which affects mood. (SAMe can also be taken as a supplement). B12 is only found naturally in animal products, so if you’re vegan or vegetarian, pay special attention to making sure you’re getting enough from B12-fortified foods and a supplement.

Recommended Dietary Allowance of B12

  • Girls 14-18: 2.4 mcg
  • Women 19+: 2.4 mcg
  • When pregnant 19: 2.6 mcg
  • When breastfeeding 19: 2.8 mcg

Good B12 food sources*

  • Beef liver
  • Beef top sirloin
  • Breakfast cereals (fortified)
  • Clams
  • Eggs
  • Haddock
  • Ham
  • Milk
  • Salmon
  • Swiss cheese
  • Tuna
  • Trout
  • Yogurt

*One serving of these foods provides 10 percent or more of the recommended daily value. See the National Institutes of Health for a longer list of selected B12 foods (as well as serving sizes and daily value percentages).

Vitamin C

“It is widely known that during times of stress your body tends to rapidly deplete stores of B vitamins and vitamin C…. Vitamin C helps to support the adrenal glands, whose proper functioning is necessary to your ability to cope with stress.” ~Dr. Edmund J. Bourne, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook2

Recommended Dietary Allowance of Vitamin C

  • Girls 14-18: 65 mg
  • When pregnant 14-18: 80 mg
  • When breastfeeding 14-18: 115 mg
  • Women 19+: 75 mg
  • When pregnant 19+: 85 mg
  • When breastfeeding 19+: 120 mg

Good vitamin C food sources*

  • Broccoli (raw)
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage (cooked)
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower (raw)
  • Grapefruit
  • Grapefruit juice
  • Green peas
  • Kiwifruit
  • Orange juice
  • Oranges
  • Potatoes (baked)
  • Spinach (cooked)
  • Strawberries
  • Sweet green peppers (raw)
  • Sweet red peppers (raw)
  • Tomato juice
  • Tomatoes (raw)

*One serving of these foods provides 10 percent or more of the recommended daily value. See the National Institutes of Health for a longer list of selected vitamin C foods (as well as serving sizes and daily value percentages).

Calcium

“It is widely known that calcium can act as a tranquilizer, having a calming effect on the nervous system…. Depletion of calcium can result in nerve cell overactivity, which may be one the of the underlying physiological bases of anxiety.” ~Dr. Edmund J. Bourne, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook3

Recommended Dietary Allowance of Calcium

  • Girls 9-18: 1,300 mg
  • Pregnant under 19 years: 1,300 mg
  • Breastfeeding under 19 years: 1,300 mg
  • Women 19-50: 1,000 mg
  • Pregnant 19+: 1,000 mg
  • Breastfeeding 19+: 1,000 mg
  • Women 51+: 1,200 mg

Good calcium food sources*

  • Breakfast cereals (fortified)
  • Buttermilk
  • Cheddar cheese
  • Cottage cheese
  • Milk
  • Mozzarella cheese
  • Orange juice
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Soymilk (or similarly fortified non-dairy milks)
  • Tofu
  • Turnip greens
  • Yogurt

*One serving of these foods provides 10 percent or more of the recommended daily value. See the National Institutes of Health for a longer list of selected calcium-rich foods (as well as serving sizes and daily value percentages).

Magnesium

Magnesium regulates your body’s level of calcium (a natural tranquilizer) and can have its own calming effect on the body.

Recommended Dietary Allowance of Magnesium

  • Women 14-18: 360 mg
  • Women 19-30: 310 mg
  • Women 31+: 320 mg
  • Pregnant 19-30: 350 mg
  • Breastfeeding 19-30: 310 mg
  • Pregnant 31+: 360 mg
  • Breastfeeding 31+: 320 mg

Good magnesium food sources*

  • Almonds
  • Avocados
  • Black beans
  • Breakfast cereals (fortified)
  • Brown rice
  • Cashews
  • Edamame
  • Peanut butter
  • Peanuts
  • Potatoes (baked with skin)
  • Shredded wheat cereal
  • Soymilk (or similarly fortified non-dairy milks)
  • Spinach (cooked)
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Yogurt

*One serving of these foods provides 10 percent or more of the recommended daily value. See the National Institutes of Health for a longer list of selected magnesium-rich foods (as well as serving sizes and daily value percentages).

What to expect

Do I expect changing my diet will make my anxiety go away? No. Do I expect it to make a difference? I’m hopeful. Even if eating foods for anxiety makes a small difference, that’s enough for me. Because in my experience with managing anxiety, that’s the best I can hope for – little things adding up to something big.

Do you notice if what you eat affects your anxiety? What foods have you found to be helpful, if any? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Please note, none of this information should serve as, or replace, professional help for an anxiety disorder. I hope it is helpful, but if you have an anxiety disorder — or think you might — please seek out a therapist and/or support group in your area. The website of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) is a great resource.

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