“Do you know how addictive and damaging sugar is to your body,” a friend asked as I popped a handful of chocolate chips in my mouth.
“That’s ridiculous. I exercise every day—I can afford to do this,” I snapped back.
Only believing half of what I said, I turned away and looked inside the empty bag wondering how I ended up like this. The educated side of my brain knew what I was doing was damaging and addictive and absolutely all consuming, but I couldn’t stop. Coffee and energy drinks had replaced water, while licorice and chocolate chips became my new fruit. Sugar could calm me one moment, only to turn on me the next, by increasing my anxiety and panic.
As the stress of the day would increase, so did my sugar intake. The dosage of my anxiety medication had already been adjusted twice, and I couldn’t fathom the idea of going to the doctor, yet again. So instead, I abused sugar. Until one day when the extreme highs and lows from the sweet treats became too much for my body and I found myself increasing the dosage of my anxiety medication.
Pinpointing when the addictive cycle started is difficult. All I know is that my anxiety attacks became more frequent, my headaches worsened, my thoughts constantly raced, and I awoke each morning feeling like I had clenched my jaw all night long. I had been inadvertently blaming my heightened anxiety on the emotional stress from a new position at work. But when my life started unraveling, I knew something needed to change.
It wasn’t until I cut back on processed sugar that I realized the mental health issues plaguing me daily were worsened by the overconsumption of this addictive ingredient. And while sugar does not cause anxiety, it does create changes in your body that may make your anxiety symptoms worse, or cause feelings that trigger anxiety attacks. Even researchers have established a correlation between a high-sugar intake and anxiety. They believe that the roller coaster of high blood sugar followed by a crash worsens anxiety symptoms and impairs the bodies ability to cope with stress.
After finding myself at one of the lowest points ever in my life, I realized things needed to change. I could choose to continue reaching for sugar in a desperate attempt to self-medicate, or look for ways to help manage my anxiety and stress levels through dietary changes in hopes of changing my overall health. Please follow my journey below to see what helped.
1. Reduce Foods Containing Sugar
As soon as I realized the high sugar diet I was bingeing on was having a direct impact on my anxiety attacks, I immediately stopped buying foods high in added sugar and high fructose corn syrup. And instead, I purchased foods high in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and B vitamins which helps stabilize moods.
2. Start Eating More Fat
I also substituted my sugar laden snacks with higher fat options such as: almonds, pistachios, greek yogurt, vegetables dipped in nut butters, and whole eggs.
3. Protein Throughout the Day
My day now begins with a protein/fruit smoothie and oatmeal sprinkled with almonds, followed by three to four meals made up of protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates (lots of fruits and vegetables).
4. Prep Food Ahead of Time
When faced with heightened symptoms of anxiety and lack of food preparation, the first thing I am going to reach for is sugar, especially during a busy work week.
In order to help alleviate the emotional roller coaster bingeing on sugar produces, and the resulting anxiety that occurs, I spend a few hours on the weekends cooking and packaging meals. These “grab and go” snacks and meals are loaded with protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. They are also easily accessible, which means I spend less time searching for sugar to satisfy my physical and emotional hunger.
What I Know:
While dietary changes alone cannot cure anxiety, they can minimize symptoms, boost energy and improve the body’s ability to cope with stress. Living with an anxiety disorder is not easy. But with the right medication and changes to my lifestyle (that includes a significant reduction in sugar) I now have days when the racing thoughts, constant worrying, and panic does not take over.
And as for those chocolate chips go … they have taken up permanent residence in my famous chocolate pumpkin muffins.
Photo: tracy benjamin, CC-BY
Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness, and wellness.