For anyone suffering with an anxiety disorder, changing your diet can be an encouraged natural step. And while gentle nutrition is beneficial for us all and can contribute toward a healthy mind, any extreme diet proposed to be a cure all for anxiety, can actually become harmful and trigger disordered eating behaviors that can make anxiety even worse.
The lure of changing your diet to heal your condition is so strong because it is something that is in your control. It is something that you can latch on to very quickly when you’re in a vulnerable state and you’ll try anything to get better. Anxiety can make us feel incredibly out of control and from that fearful place, adopting an extreme way of eating can give us a way to cope. But, it can quickly be the straw that sets off disordered eating. And in my case, this took the form of orthorexia.
I should probably introduce myself, shouldn’t I? I’m Lauren and I’m an ex-nutritionist from across the pond (I’ll get to the ex a bit later…).
I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when I was 21 after having consistent panic attacks and anxiety for a good few months. Looking back, I always had an underlying current of anxiety after some childhood trauma, but it was triggered in a very huge and profound way after a boozy night out celebrating my 21st birthday (my anxiety disorder saved me in a weird way from a very destructive lifestyle, but that’s for another post entirely).
A couple years into my anxiety recovery journey, I read somewhere from a wellness blogger that you could heal your anxiety with dietary changes. With this enlightening new information for someone who had no clue about nutritional benefits (all I cared about before was calories…) I started to make various tweaks to my diet. I was feeling really hopeful that changing my diet would make all the anxiety and suffering go away and I latched onto the idea that the perfect diet could heal my anxiety.
What started out as small changes, snowballed into a fear of so many different foods. First, it was an attempt to eat only organic foods. Then I tried cutting out gluten. Then I cut out meat because I didn’t want to have to eat non-organic meat ever. Then dairy was scary, legumes caused leaky gut, which caused anxiety (right!?) and sugar was sinful (but coconut sugar wasn’t – thanks for that wellness culture – hand to face emoji). Then I became vegan (mostly for ethical reasons). Then I made a big switch to eating paleo, even though I went vegan for ethical reasons, because my desire to eat the perfect diet outweighed my desire to save the animals. Chickpeas became the devil. Rice was inflammatory and vegetable oil was “toxic”. Grains went off the menu because you know, “grain brain” … Then I was worried about eating too much fruit. I couldn’t eat something that I did not know the ingredients of and if something had preservatives in, it would give me hella anxiety. Then I went vegan again because I read a book that said actually paleo has too much fat and was harmful… I could be healthy and save the animals – “fantastic” – thought orthorexic Lauren…
As you can see it got things went to an extreme very quickly and as these behaviours became more and more restrictive, it took up more and more of my life and thought space. I avoided other people cooking for me and if they did cook for me, I would watch them like a hawk to see what ingredients they were putting in the dish. If I saw them putting canola oil in the frying pan, my anxiety would sky rocket. I only truly enjoyed eating at organic “health food” restaurants. My delight for these restaurants that appeared as a “passion for health and nutrition” to others, were truly because they felt safe and the food was “safe” in my mind.
I will never forget a memory from when I was studying Nutrition at College (of course orthorexic Lauren went back to school to study nutrition…). And this memory is something I look back on with almost disbelief for how ill I was. I was at College and had forgotten to pack any homemade or “safe” snacks. In my hunger, I went to the college canteen and brought a protein ball. I did not know the ingredients and whether the protein in it was natural or had “chemicals” in it. Despite the anxiety, I ate the protein ball. Yet upon eating it, the thoughts about the protein escalated until I had a panic attack. Yup, a panic attack about not knowing the ingredients of the protein ball. This is orthorexia at its worst and a clear example of how worrying about food in such extreme terms can make an anxiety disorder so much worse. What began as something with good intentions in and effort to manage anxiety symptoms, actually made it a heck of a lot worse because I became terrified of foods that I believed would make me anxious. The anxiety fueled the orthorexia and the orthorexia fueled the anxiety.
The last straw for me was when I was on holiday in Japan and I literally broke down to my wonderful partner who had been dropping hints for a good few years that perhaps what I was doing was not healthy (thank God for this man). Here I was on this incredible experience and all I could worry about was how rice would affect my health. I knew then and there that I was ready to heal from this food anxiety nightmare. And that’s what I did. It was actually some words from Robyn’s blog that would help me begin healing. Something along the lines of; the stress from worrying about a food is more detrimental to your health than the actual food itself. These words were literally like a guiding force every time I took a step toward healing and they still help me to this day.
When I began to heal from my orthorexia, I really saw that eating or not eating x,y,z food was NOT the cause of my anxiety. Gluten didn’t make me anxious, rather worrying about the effect gluten would have on my anxiety and my health would increase my anxiety levels. See the difference? I can eat gluten with every single meal in a day now and not experience anxiety.
With all that said, I am in no way saying nutrition doesn’t play a role in anxiety and there aren’t possible therapeutic dietary changes that can be helpful for managing anxiety. And I am certainly not saying my way is the right way for everyone – we are all highly individual! Keeping your blood sugar steady with regular meals is really important, as is eating ENOUGH (this is a big one) to fuel your brain and eating a variety of foods to nourish your gut and so your body and brain can function – those are all good things.
And then you can figure out your happy level with common triggers like alcohol and coffee. For example, I tend to drink fully caffeinated coffee (as much as I love the stuff) when I’m super relaxed like on holiday. Not because it is “bad for my health” but because it can heighten anxiety to an uncomfortable level for me in normal day to day life. Same goes for alcohol. I rarely drink it. Not because it’s “bad” (although I recognize alcohol is an unhealthy choice for many people for sensitive, personal reasons), but even a little alcohol can trigger anxiety for me. Managing my anxiety with these reasonable changes for me is easy and not restrictive and is completely out of self-care. It’s not rooted in fear and cutting out all the meat, dairy, grains, sugar and all the foods deemed “inflammatory” in a desperate attempt to heal anxiety. There’s a difference.
Some small changes that are right for you, do not feel stressful, restrictive and come from a place of freedom vs fear can be life giving towards better mental health. The problem is when we place ourselves on restricted diets to “heal anxiety” but in that process we become terrified of so many foods, can’t live a full life and in fact begin to live in an even smaller and anxious place than the anxiety has already created. And just because not drinking much coffee or alcohol helps keep my anxiety in check, that doesn’t mean that will work for you. With common triggers like alcohol and coffee, you can gently figure what works for YOU as you take care of yourself from a place of kindness and respect for your whole self.
The truth is that my anxiety will never be healed through a “perfect diet” and I feel thankful to say that my anxiety is managed pretty well now without thinking much about my food choices. My anxiety can be managed holistically through a variety of ways like therapy, behavioural approaches and realising that it’s ok to feel hard emotions like anxiety and I will survive because it’s just a feeling. I can do hard things and sit in the discomfort. That means taking care of myself, being kind and compassionate with myself, getting enough sleep and getting enough rest. It means doing what is best for me even if that means doing something different than “the crowd.” It’s sometimes (ok who am I kidding, often) being a grandma and resting on a Friday night after a long week because rest is extremely healing for me (and perhaps us all). It’s saying no and setting boundaries to protect my mental health. It is not letting anxious feelings rule my life or stop me from living a full life. It is making peace with anxiety and knowing it might show up and that is totally ok. It is forgiving myself for having anxiety in the first place and not letting it be my identity or define who I am (which I did for WAY too long). It is meditating and deep breathing and it’s praying and trusting and surrendering control to God.
With this lived experience, I want to say from the bottom of my heart, if you are struggling with anxiety, no amount of green smoothies or “toxin free” food is going to cure anxiety. Obsessing about eating “perfect foods” may in fact make it worse and trigger very disordered behaviour around food or reignite old ED behaviours that are not quite healed (that is what it did for me). Trying to eat the perfect diet never helped my life in any way. In fact, it made it an awful lot worse. Because eating the perfect diet will never satisfy our emotional + mental issues. It will never satisfy our emotional and spiritual hungers.
Adopting extreme diets and cutting out lots of important food groups is not the end-all-be-all answer to our anxiety issues – as alluring as it can be. And while gentle nutrition and nourishing our bodies + minds with adequate energy and nutrients is important for maintaining good mental health, we do not have to obsess over every morsel that enters our mouth “in case it causes anxiety”.
Our worth cannot be found in green smoothies.
And no perfect diet will remedy underlying anxiety that needs caring and compassionate mental, emotional and spiritual work.
(P.S. I nearly forgot about the ex-nutritionist part… So why ex-nutritionist? Well ya girl went back to study nutrition as a result of orthorexia and now that I’m free of that, I’ve realised that nutrition is not my path. You can read more about that here if you fancy.)
Have a great weekend!