4 years ago I was 103 kilograms. I was sitting at my computer, at my previous clinic in Adamstown, writing consultation notes for patients. I remember needing to take my shirt off because I was sweating uncontrollably, and could not focus on what I was doing. I was educating patients on nutrition while at the same time I was struggling with eating a healthy diet. I recall finishing a shift at my clinic on a Friday night - tired, lethargic and disconnected, and driving immediately to purchase a takeaway that often consisted of hamburgers, scallops, chips and a Ben and Jerry's (I love that ice-cream!). This was my fix, one way of disconnecting from my anxiety and stress. I remember the pleasure I experienced from ravaging each and every item, and yet I would always feel worse at the end of it. Sometimes I would even go back for another Ben and Jerry's. I also remember the shame I felt, hopeful that I would not run into a patient I had spoken to that day. Eventually, I was able to reign myself in, yet I struggle.
When patients come and see me for anxiety, it is mostly for a compound supplement. Very rarely, is it to discuss diet. This I understand. Instead, a ready, effective fix is what a patient with anxiety is looking for, not a dietary intervention that may induce further stress. With the stressors one is already facing why would they want to start a new diet that is unlikely to bring immediate reprieve from their anxiety. This I understand too. Yet, knowing what I know now, I do believe that anxiety can be managed through diet, and provide a benefit over a greater length of time than a compound supplement can.
What I know is that people faced with anxiety and other mood disorders often have poor quality diets - low in fruits and vegetables, while high in fats and sugars. It is understandable that a person diagnosed with anxiety would eat a diet consisting of unhealthy fats and refined sugars - these foods elevate the mood stablising chemicals in our body serotonin and dopamine. To devour an excess of unhealthy fats and refined sugars makes sense in this context - who doesn't want to elevate their mood! When I feel stressed I know my eating behaviour begins to slide, I start to crave foods that I know will only add to my stress, and a sense of unease and unhappiness. For me, there was definitely a link between my mental health, behaviour, eating patterns and overweigt.
So is there any research to back up what I am saying? Unfortunately, there are very few human trials on the effects of nutrition on anxiety. Most research has examined the eating behaviours of animals when anxiety is induced. In these studies it is understood that animals consuming a diet consisting of high fats and refined sugars experienced reductions in serotonin and an increased expression of opioid receptors. What this means is that animals felt worse, and started to produce chemicals to reduce the effects from the foods they were consuming. What researchers have found is that a diet consisting of healthy fats i.e. nuts and seeds, healthy oils, avocado, actually reduced anxiety in all animal models tested. Whereas a high sugar diet consisting of sucrose, i.e. sweetened breakfast cereals, chocolate, peanut butter, ice-cream, puddings, sweetened yoghurts, heightened anxiety. The conclusion is a high intake of healthy fats is anxiolytic, meaning it reduces anxiety. In contrast to a high sucrose diet that is anxiogenic, meaning it increases anxiety. What is also interesting is that a high sucrose diet is also likely to lead to irregular eating behaviours including binge eating - which has also been shown to increase anxiety.
The number of children I see that consume 7-Eleven Slurpy's - consisting of high sucrose syrups is crazy. I once had a teenage patient who was consuming what he told me was 5 large slurpy's per day. This patient did not require supplementation for his anxiety, instead he required a massive change to diet. Yet, this is difficult, especially for children and teenagers who struggle with picky eating, palate changes and demotivation to change. This I also understand, I would much rather a Ben and Jerry's when I feel low than a plate of salad with tuna, nuts and avocado! But I do feel better in my body and my mind when I eat this! Research is starting to look into the benefits of a ketogenic diet (high healthy fats) for anxiety, with animal studies demonstrating a significant reductions in anxiety for the animals tested. If you are not incorporating healthy fats into your diet I encourage you to begin, now. I know it is hard, best of luck.
If you are serious about changing your eating habits make an appointment, I would like to help you with this.
Mark Hinchey Naturopathy
Address: McDonald Jones Stadium, Admin Building, 294 Turton Road Broadmeadow, 2292.