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!
What a great article! It resonated with me, so much and I appreciate you sharing your story and what worked for you, Lauren. Is it possible to repost the links? They were not connecting for me. Thanks!
Hi Victoria, I am so glad you enjoyed reading! No problem at all. I have looked into the links and they should be working now. Please let me know if they don’t work for you 🙂
I can relate to this so much. I believe this is were my ED really started. I struggled with severe anxiety after two of my children were born and was lead to believe I could fix it with my diet. Thank you for sharing your story!
Hi Rachel. I’m sorry to hear you struggled with severe anxiety, I know it is not easy at all. No problem at all, I’m glad that sharing my story helps people know we are not the only ones going through something.
Thank you so much for sharing your experiences! It’s amazing how much food has affected my anxiety over the years (meaning worrying about what I’m eating and how much I’m eating causes me more anxiety than anything else).
Robyn, blog post question / topic for your consideration: I was a competitive swimmer from 10-22, training 4-5 hours every day with 1 rest day per week. During this time, I ate whatever I wanted because I knew my body needed fuel to support all my training. When I graduated college and retired from competitive swimming, after a few years I learned my body couldn’t handle that level of training / exercise. Over the years, I’ve continued to back off the amount of exercise I partake in. I’m 7 months into my intuitive eating journey (when I stopped swimming I obsessively counted calories for 5+ years), but confused about my weight set point since the majority of my life has been spent exercising a ton. Do you have any advice you could offer? I guess the question would be figuring out your weight set point post athletic competing / excessive training.
Hi Maddie, no problem at all. I totally understand what you mean. Worrying about what we eat is a huge contributor to our anxiety levels and when we take small steps to make peace with food we can often notice our anxiety levels decreasing!
I totally echo where you are coming from after having been a DI athlete and now trying to renegotiate my relationship with food. While training so intensely, I was able to use the mentality of “food is fuel” and focus on eating for my performance. But now I can feel my body needs a break from such intense exercise, and I’m working through my hunger/fullness cues and my approach to eating. As an endurance athlete, I couldn’t fully rely on my hunger cues and literally had to stuff myself at every meal/snack to get in enough calories. Even though I know it is the right thing to do for my body right now, reducing my exercise is very anxiety provoking for me, and I feel like on top of that I can’t trust my body’s hunger/fullness signals. I would really appreciate any advice you have on the topic Robyn!
Oh, I like you! Loved this post and wanted to read more but the link for “You can read more about that here if you fancy.)” does not seem to work for me.
Ah thank you for the kind words Alisha! So sorry about that, the links should be working now but please let me know if they are not 🙂
Working! Thank you, Lauren!!
Emily Swanson says
Wow it’s so amazing how doing something drastic to our diet, restricting things is often sooo detrimental and often more anxiety inducing. I LOVE the freedom that came for you after incorporating those foods back in; what a blessing your boyfriend is. I love that you’re learning to take enough rest and be gentle with yourself too. <3
Hi Emily! Thank you for the lovely comment. It is amazing isn’t it. He really is a blessing and has really helped keep me accountable in this whole healing journey. Yes, rest and being gentle to ourselves is so key!
I loved this!
So glad you’ve found peace & would love to hear more about the path you’re on now! But the link above is not working for me- could you re-post maybe?
Hi Liv! So glad you loved it. So sorry about the links! They should be working now but if not please do let me know 🙂
Emily Vardy says
“The anxiety fueled the orthorexia and the orthorexia fueled the anxiety.” SO true! I’ve dealt with more of an EDNOS-type disorder than orthoexia, but the same kind of thing. I’ve found that since I’ve been on meds for my anxiety/depression, my ED symptoms are a lot easier to deal with as well, just because I stress so much less about food stuff.
Also, same same for the “studying nutrition because of an ED” thing…I was THIS CLOSE to going back to university to study nutrition before I realized it was totally based on my food obsessions. Seems like it’s a really common thing 🙁
Hi Emily! Thank you for your comment. It is very true indeed. I’m glad to hear that your ED symptoms are a lot easier to deal with now you’re on medication for anxiety/depression. Unfortunately it does seem to be a common path but hopefully more and more people will learnt the HAES and IE ways and we can have more practitioners like Robyn in the world 🙂
Alli O says
Wow, so much of this resonates with me! Suddenly at 24 I found myself extremely ill and diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. I didn’t want to take drugs the rest of my life (and they didn’t really help much anyway) so I turned to holistic doctors. I have literally been told that EVERY food is bad for me at one point or another from these doctors. EVERY SINGLE FOOD…fruit-sugars bad, vegetables-fiber bad, grains-inflammatory bad, legumes- bad, meat-bad, diary-bad (well I am actually fairly intolerant to that, but that started before the UC). I struggled for YEARS trying to cure myself with diet and supplements, and even did go back to several drugs, and I still haven’t found the solution yet. BUT I am FINALLY trying to incorporate all foods again because taking out all those foods didn’t make a difference at all. And the doctors pretty much just gave me an eating disorder instead of helping me. While I definitely agree that certain diets and restrictions have their place for healing and health, when you create fear over so many foods, the anxiety and stress is SO much worse for you than just eating the foods. It’s still something I am struggling with but I can at least hear the other half of my brain these days saying “well not eating these foods didn’t make you better, so just enjoy and move on!” Thank you for this post, I feel like there has to be a lot of people out there in the same situation.
This is a great article! I know everyone identifies with your story in terms of struggling with eating habits. Thanks for sharing your advice and experience. BTW, people are also having greeat results on their healthy weight journey with this https://bit.ly/2w1WFq5
YESS love this! As someone who struggles with anxiety, I think it’s so great to talk about the fact that while good nutrition is good, it’s not going to cure anxiety. Also, totally agree about Robyn”s quote about how stressing over healthy food is more detrimental to our health than not eating the healthy food!
Penelope Sawanger says
Hi Robyn! My name is Penny and I just wanted to let you know that your posts are inspiring, clarifying and always spot-on. Afte over two years of struggling with disordered eating and starvation-bingeing cycles, sometimes the going gets tough. But your light, witty tone, knowledgeable and professional expertise and honest voice remind me why I embarked on my intuitive eating journey in the first place. You’ve instilled in me a passion for loving my body and a strong, healthy relationship towards food – recognizing food for the pleasure that it is while remembering that its primary role is to fuel us to do the things we love.I was beyond happy to find out about your pregnancy. Congratulations–I wish you the best! Your son is a lucky boy to have such a strong, healthy mama! Your bump is adorable & you look great! I’m expecting in September and pregnancy is giving me a reason to fuel my body adequately. Pregnancy has made me love my body for what it can do, not solely what it looks like (although at 37 weeks, I love my big baby belly!) Thanks again for being the amazing role model you are! I hope I made you smile and feel appreciated!
Well said. I truly believe to control anxiety and depression a big part is learning to be comfortable with ones self and your life situation. I hear of people with mental health issues changing jobs, diet, partners, neighbourhoods…..as if to give reason or even blame if you like to something other than yourself.
It is never the situation we live in but the way we respond to it. If this wasn’t the case then those in 3rd world countries would be miserable, all people confronted by the same stresses would be effected equally….this simply is not the case.
A healthy diet and lifestyle is fantastic regardless of what is happening in your life. One must realise that it is however alone not the key to your relief
Sara H. says
This brought me to tears. Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve been on a year long paleo diet journey. Recently I started working again after being a stay at home mom for 8 years. All of a sudden my body started having panic attacks. I’m pretty sure I’m not handling the stress well. But I’ve recently had to really look at what I’m feeding my family and I know the worry that has come with it has not helped my anxiety. I’ve just started therapy and just beginning to uncover what is truly going on. It’s nice to know I am not alone.