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Hmm, carbs and anxiety?
You might be thinking, …
"What a strange combination? What have carbs got to do with anxiety?"
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.
Studies show that these foods are more likely to provide a moderate but lasting effect on brain chemistry, mood, and energy level.
In case you’re wondering whether you can replace high-carb foods with high-protein or high-fat foods let me share with you some key facts:
- Carbohydrates are one of three macro essential nutrients, the other two are fats and proteins, which means that your body and mind needs all three to function properly. Since your body cannot produce these nutrients, you have to get them through food, and so it is not a good idea to replace carbs as you need them!
- Carbohydrates are also the body’s preferred source of energy, and as each cell in your body needs energy to perform its functions, you need more carbs than proteins and fats in your diet. The official dietary guidelines around the world, including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, recommend that carbs should make up the bulk of our calories. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that carbs need to be approximately 55 to 75 percent of total daily calorie intake.
- According to research, “diets low in carbohydrate tends to precipitate [cause] depression, since the production of brain chemicals serotonin and tryptophan that promote the feeling of well-being, is triggered by carbohydrate rich foods.”
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.
But, of course, not all carbs are the same.
There are good carbs and bad carbs.
While good sources of carbs are highly effective anti-anxiety foods, bad carbs are some of the worst anxiety trigger foods.
In this article, you’ll learn how to choose the best carbs to manage your anxiety.
Table of Contents
What are Carbohydrates?
There are three types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches, and fiber.
- Sugars are simple carbohydrates.
- Starches and fiber are complex carbohydrates.
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.
Dietary Fiber Explained
- Fiber, also known as roughage, is the part of plant-based foods that cannot be digested (broken down) by the small intestine.
- It helps to keep the digestive tract healthy, reduces the risk of inflammation, and promotes satiety helping you stay fuller for longer.
- There are two types of fiber – soluble fiber and insoluble fiber – and both are important for health.
- According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the adequate intake (AI) of fiber for adult women is 28 grams per day, and 33.6 grams for adult men.
How to Manage Anxiety with Carbs?
1. Choose The Best Source of Carbs
Good carbs are all-natural foods high in carbohydrates including vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fruit.
But even though all these foods are a good source of carbohydrates and other beneficial nutrients, vegetables and whole grains are the best sources of carbs.
Vegetables and whole grains are rich in complex carbohydrates, which digest gradually and give a slow release of energy.
What are whole grains?
Whole Grains Explained
Whole grains are grains, with all of the components still intact, including bran, germ, and endosperm.
- Bran is the fiber-rich outer layer with B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (plant compounds that help in disease prevention.
- The germ is the core of the seed or the embryo. It is rich in healthy fats, antioxidants, B vitamins, Vitamin E, and beneficial plant compounds.
- The endosperm is the middle layer of the grain and is mostly made up of starchy carbohydrates. It also contains protein and small amounts of B vitamins and minerals.
- Examples of whole grains include brown rice, millet, buckwheat, and similar.
Manufacturers refine grains by removing the nutrient-packed germ and bran, leaving only the endosperm (starch). This extends shelf life, gives a finer texture, speeds up cooking time, and is preferred for baking.
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?
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.
You can use the University of Sydney Search for the Glycemic Index tool to help you!
Examples of Good Carbs
Acorn squash, Artichoke, Asparagus, Aubergine
Beetroot, Beetroot, Bok choy, Broad beans, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Butternut squash, Cabbage, Carrots, Cauliflower, Celeriac, Celery, Chard, Chives, Collard greens, Courgette, Green, red, yellow pepper, Jerusalem artichoke, Kale, Leek, Nettles, Okra, Onions, Parsnip, Potato, Pumpkin, Radish, Shallot, Spinach, Spring onion, Sweet potato, Turnip, Turnip, Water chestnut, Watercress
Amaranth, Barley, Buckwheat, Bulgur, Corn, Millet, Oats
Quinoa, Brown, red, black and wild rice, Rye, Spelt
Chickpeas, Lentils, Peas, Adzuki Beans
Kidney Beans, Black Beans, Soybeans, Pinto Beans
Apple, Apricot, Banana, Blackberry, Blackcurrant, Blueberry
Currant, Cherry, Cranberry, Date, Fig, Goji berry, Gooseberry, Grape, Raisin, Grapefruit, Kiwifruit, Mango, Melon, Cantaloupe, Watermelon, Mulberry, Nectarine, Papaya, Passionfruit, Peach, Pear, Plum, Prune, Pineapple,, Pomegranate, Raspberry, Redcurrant, 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!
Remember from above, fiber is a complex carbohydrate that keeps your blood sugar stable!
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!
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.
Fact: White Flour is a Refined Grain
To produce white flour wheat grain is stripped of fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and healthy fats, leaving behind only the starchy carbohydrate! White flour and everything made from while flour is refined carbohydrate.
What foods should you try to avoid?
List of Bad Carbs
Aim to avoid or eliminate the following foods:
- All desserts except whole fruit
- All types of dough (phyllo / filo, pie crust, etc.)
- Breaded or battered foods
- Candy / sweets
- Caramel corn and kettle corn
- Chocolate (dark, milk and white)
- Condensed milk
- Chocolate milk (and other sweetened milks)
- Corn chips
- Fried vegetable snacks like green beans and carrot chips
- Honey mustard
- Honey-roasted nuts
- Hot cocoa
- Ice cream, sherbet, frozen yogurt, etc.
- Jellies, jams and preserves
- Many crackers
- Most barbecue sauces
- Bread (most)
- Cereals (most)
- Granola bars, power bars, energy bars, etc.
- Most Milk substitutes (almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, etc.) because they usually have sugar added
- Pasta, noodles, and couscous (most)
- Rice cakes and corn cakes (most)
- Panko crumbs
- Puddings and custards
- Rice wrappers
- Sweetened sodas / fizzy drinks
- Salsa, tomato sauces, salad dressings, and other jarred/canned sauces
- Sweet wines and liqueurs
- Sweetened yogurts
- Other sweetened dairy products
What are some of the side effects of consuming bad carbs?
Side Effects of 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, agave syrup, 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
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.
Click here to read how to adopt an anti-anxiety diet that helped me reduce and manage Anxiety.
Top 3 Benefits of Carbohydrates for Anxiety
Stabilizes Blood Sugar
Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains help to keep blood sugar stable. Stable blood sugar is necessary to effectively manage day-to-day anxiety levels. Sudden dips in blood sugar can cause common anxiety symptoms.
Many whole grains are naturally rich in an amino acid called tryptophan, which your body needs to produce serotonin and melatonin.
Serotonin, the “feel-good hormone,” improves mood and relaxes your brain and body, while melatonin helps establish and maintain steady sleep cycles.
Foods high in tryptophan are also shown to help keep depression at bay and promote healthy sleeping patterns that are very important to mental health and well-being.
Anxiety is often linked to increased inflammation.
Whole grains and vegetables help to counteract that problem; they are packed with dietary fiber which helps to fight inflammation.
Ketogenic Diet and Anxiety
The Ketogenic diet, or keto diet, is quickly gaining traction in the weight loss field.
It is essentially a low-carb diet or a low-carb-high-fat (LCHF) diet.
The idea behind this diet is that when the body is low in carbs, it turns to fat for fuel.
But carbs are the body’s preferred source of energy and while your cells can extract fuel from fat, it is much more efficient when the body converts carbs (glucose) to fuel.
So, when the body has to convert fat or protein to fuel, this can result in stress response and/or anxiety.
I’m also going to share my personal experience with this type of diet.
I was on a low carb, high-fat diet for two years where I consumed lots of chicken, homemade kefir, broth, avocado, lettuce, coconut oil, and some non-starchy veggies.
Although I noticed improvements in some of my symptoms, my anxiety and systemic candidiasis were through the roof.
I believe the ketogenic diet is not suitable for people that suffer from stress, anxiety, or have a sensitive nervous system.
Whole grains and a variety of vegetables have been the most effective foods in helping me manage anxiety.
When you are suffering from anxiety you need a steady release of glucose (carbs) to avoid triggering anxiety or the fight-or-flight response.
That’s why Uma Naidoo, MD at Harvard Medical School also recommends,
Don’t skip meals. Doing so may result in drops in blood sugar that cause you to feel jittery, which may worsen underlying anxiety.
-Uma Naidoo, MD Harvard Medical School
Top Anti-Anxiety Foods High in Fiber
The following foods are some of my favorite anti-anxiety foods that are high in dietary fiber (good carbs).
- Total dietary fiber: 5.2 grams of fiber per one cup of cooked quinoas (185 grams). 
- Quinoa is technically considered a seed, but it is often used in cooking as a cereal grain.
- It is also classed as a superfood because of its nutritional value and health benefits.
- Quinoa is a great source of protein and its one of the rare plant proteins that contain all essential amino acids– thus it’s a complete protein.
- Key nutrients: rich in manganese, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and potassium. It contains B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, folate, B6 and niacin) and vitamin E.
- Quinoa is gluten-free.
- Health Benefits: rich in minerals and antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-cancer and anti-depressant, reduces the risk of disease, a great source of protein, controls blood sugar, and aids in weight loss.
- Total dietary fiber: 8.2 grams of fiber per cup (81 grams) of cooked rolled oats. 
- Key nutrients: manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, selenium, zinc and thiamin.
- Health benefits: reduces cholesterol, aids weight loss, controls blood sugar, rich in antioxidants, and relieves skin problems.
- Oats are gluten-free.
- Total dietary fiber: 3.5 grams of fiber per cup (195 grams) of cooked brown rice. 
- Key nutrients: Manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin B6, niacin, thiamin, and selenium.
- Health benefits: boosts heart health, controls blood sugar, reduces cholesterol, lowers the risk of diabetes.
- Rice is gluten free.
- Total dietary fiber: 4.5 grams of fiber per cup (168 grams) of cooked buckwheat. 
- Key nutrients: manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, and niacin.
- Health benefits: high in antioxidants, provides highly digestible protein, prevents disease, improves heart health, lowers cholesterol.
- Buckwheat is gluten-free.
- Total dietary fiber: 2.3 grams of fiber per cup (174 grams) of cooked millet. 
- Key nutrients: Manganese, zinc, magnesium and phosphorus, B vitamins (thiamin, vitamin B6, and folate), and omega 6 essential fatty acids.
- Health benefits: anti-inflammatory, reduces the risk of heart disease risk, controls blood sugar lowers, and lowers the risk of diabetes.
- Millet is gluten-free.
- Total dietary fiber: 5.2 grams of fiber per cup (246 grams) of cooked amaranth. 
- Key nutrients: manganese, vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and selenium.
- Health benefits: reduces the risk of heart disease and inflammation, and lowers cholesterol.
- Amaranth is gluten-free.
- Total dietary fiber: 9 grams of fiber per one cup (205 grams) of baked and cubed acorn squash. 
- Key nutrients: Vitamin C, vitamin A, thiamine, vitamin B6, folate, potassium, manganese, magnesium, and iron.
- Health benefits: high in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, boosts the immune system, reduces high blood pressure, and fights cancer.
- Total dietary fiber: 3.1 grams of fiber per one cup (156 grams). 
- Key nutrients: vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
- Health Benefits: helps to fight cancer, enhances heart health, aids in weight loss and boosts immune function.
- Total dietary fiber: 3.4 grams of fiber per one cup (170 grams) of cooked beets. 
- Key nutrients: manganese, folate, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin C.
- Health Benefits: anti-inflammatory, promotes heart health, boosts brain function, detoxifies, aids in weight loss, and high in antioxidants.
- Total dietary fiber: 3.6 grams of fiber per one cup (128 grams) of chopped raw carrots. 
- Key nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin C, potassium, and manganese.
- Health benefits: protects eye health, a rich source of antioxidants, reduces the risk of heart disease, protects against cancer, and protects brain health.
- Total dietary fiber: 5.6 grams of fiber per one cup (156 grams) of chopped parsnip. 
- Key nutrients: vitamin C, folate, and manganese, potassium, magnesium and B vitamins.
- Health benefits: boosts eye health, promotes heart health, and supports bone health.
- Total dietary fiber: 15 grams of fiber per one cup (172 grams) of cooked black beans. 
- Key nutrients: folate, thiamin, manganese, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, potassium and zinc.
- Black beans are a great source of protein as well.
- Health benefits: improve cardiovascular health, high in antioxidants, boosts energy, stabilizes blood sugar, and helps with weight loss.
- Total dietary fiber: 12.5 grams of fiber per one cup (164 grams) of cooked chickpeas. 
- Key nutrients: folate, manganese, thiamin, vitamin B6, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and essential fatty acids.
- Chickpeas are also a great source of protein.
- Health benefits: manage blood sugar, increase satiety and help with weight loss, protect against heart disease and cancer.
- Total dietary fiber: 9 grams of fiber per one cup (70 grams) of cooked lima beans. 
- Key nutrients: Copper, manganese, folate, vitamin C, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, potassium, and vitamin K.
- Lima beans are another good source of protein.
- Health benefits: boost energy, high in antioxidants, promote heart health, reduce risk of cancer, control blood sugar and reduce risk of diabetes, prevent fatty liver, and help to control appetite.
- Total dietary fiber: 16.3 grams of fiber per one cup (196 grams) of cooked split peas. 
- Key nutrients: thiamine, folate, vitamin B5, vitamin K, iron, zinc, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and essential fatty acids.
- Split peas are rich in protein.
- Health benefits: anti-inflammatory, protect against osteoporosis and cancer, lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
- Total dietary fiber: 15.6 grams of fiber per one cup (198 grams) of cooked lentils. 
- Key nutrients: iron, folate, manganese, phosphorous, magnesium, thiamin and vitamin B5 and vitamin B6.
- Lentils are a great source of protein.
- Health benefits: protect heart health, balance the body’s pH level, manage blood sugar, help with weight loss, and improve immunity.
- Total dietary fiber: 9.9 grams per one medium-sized pear (275 grams). 
- Key nutrients: vitamin C, vitamin K, and potassium.
Pears also contain omega-6 fatty acids important nutrient for mental health
- Health benefits: high in antioxidants, aids in weight loss, supports heart health, helps fight diabetes, and supports bone health.
- Total dietary fiber: 3.1 grams of fiber per one medium-sized banana (118 grams). 
- Key nutrients: vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, and manganese.
- Health benefits: boosts energy, enhances mood, promotes weight loss, supports heart health, and improves kidney function.
- Green bananas are more stable on blood sugar than ripe bananas.
- Total dietary fiber: 4.4 grams of fiber per one medium-sized apple (182 grams). 
- Key nutrients: vitamin C, potassium, and antioxidants.
- Health benefits: helps fight cancer, heart disease, and diabetes; anti-inflammatory and aids in weight loss.
- Total dietary fiber: 12.4 grams of fiber per one cup (174 grams). 
- Key nutrients: vitamin K, vitamin A, riboflavin, iron, vitamin B6, potassium and niacin.
- Health benefits: boost digestion, helps to build bones and muscles, reduces cholesterol levels, and lowers blood pressure.
Final Thoughts on Carbs and Anxiety
Natural foods rich in carbohydrates such as vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fruit are essential for your overall health.
These foods are full of beneficial nutrients and have many physical and mental health benefits.
You need to consume these foods if you want to manage your anxiety effectively through food.
But make sure that you watch out for bad carbs, as these are major anxiety triggers foods.
Combine healthy sources of carbs with an anti-anxiety diet to optimize your results.
Latest posts by Sandra Glavan, Life Coach for Gentle Anxiety Sufferers (see all)
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- How to Let Go of Control and Relieve Anxiety? - 22nd September 2023