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Eating Your Worries Away?

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Eating Your Worries Away?

How diet feeds anxiety.
Robert L. Leahy
Robert L. Leahy More by this author
Apr 09, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Don’t let your anxiety determine your eating. Anxiety can have a great effect on your eating patterns. It can lead you to overeat and gain weight, with attendant health consequences such as heart conditions, diabetes, high cholesterol, etc. On the other hand, it can lead you to fast or starve yourself for long periods, causing fluctuations in blood sugar, weakness or dizziness, and a host of problems stemming from poor nutrition. Anxiety can upset the balance of your diet causing unhealthy proportions of carbohydrates, sweets, salty foods, or fats. If you are anxious, you are more likely to prefer eating higher levels of carbohydrates, sweets, and comfort foods. We are going to review the basic principles of a good, heart-healthy, balanced diet.

Although you may believe you know what a healthy diet is, I have found that a lot of my patients are misinformed. Some people think that they can skip meals, deprive themselves of food, eat only one kind of food, or avoid entire food groups.

You should read the labels on food items that you purchase in the grocery store. Pay attention to calories, servings per container, saturated fat, and other dietary information. The following are guidelines for healthy eating—both in what you eat and how you eat.

  1. Eat a heart-healthy diet. You should eat a diet that is low in saturated fat. This includes lean meats (chicken or turkey without the skin, roast beef or fish). Replace butter or margarine with olive oil or canola oil. Use skim or 1 percent milk rather than whole milk. Use nonfat rather than whole milk yogurt. Limit cakes, pastries, and pies—they are high in calories and saturated fat. Limit your salt intake. Processed foods, canned foods, and fast foods are very high in salt. Look at the labels. Women should eat a sufficient amount of calcium each day to prevent osteoporosis.
  2. Variety. Eat foods from all five food groups—fruits, grains, dairy, meats, vegetables, together with an appropriate amount of fat or oils—which will give you a good complement of the various vitamins and minerals.
  3. Balance. Make sure you’re getting proper proportions of carbohydrates, fats, and protein in your diet. Many fad diets designed around getting thin recommend either great concentrations or great reductions in one or more of these. Nonetheless, on the whole, our bodies need some of each to function efficiently.
  4. Moderation. Think about portion sizes. One serving of meat or poultry is the size of a deck of cards! A portion of rice or pasta is one cup—when was the last time a restaurant served you only one cup? Set appropriate limits to your consumption and stick to them. Multiple helpings and constant snacking can wreak havoc with any diet plan. Also, reduce or eliminate your consumption of products that contain caffeine such as coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate.
  5. Pace. Many people have a tendency to concentrate their consumption in heavy meals. Our Stone Age bodies are not meant to do this. It’s best to eat smaller amounts more frequently: the three traditional meals and two healthy snacks in between. If each meal is relatively low in calories, fats, and sugar, you’ll have fewer cravings and less of a tendency to overeat at a big meal.
  6. Consistency. Maintaining a consistent blood glucose level throughout the day is particularly important in reducing anxiety. The basic strategy for this is to eat the same amount of carbohydrates at each meal. (Carbohydrates are found in many foods other than bread and pasta, such as milk products, rice, and fruit.)

Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet will help you gain control of your anxiety. Any kind of imbalance in your diet can throw your system off-kilter; whenever that happens, your anxiety level is apt to rise. So any program designed to address anxiety should include some dietary guidelines for maintaining good eating habits.

About Author
Robert L. Leahy
Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., is recognized worldwide as one of the most respected writers and speakers on cognitive therapy. Educated at Yale University, he is the director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, president of the International As Continue reading