I have been promising you guys an update on my anxiety/mental health, so this post is a roundabout way of answering that question. I don’t know if I have enough information to write an entire post solely on my mental health right now because, to be honest, I’m in a really good place. During the past five years, I struggled with crippling anxiety, panic attacks, and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during the winter months. There were days when I didn’t want to get out of bed, and when I finally did, I wanted to press "fast forward" until the moment I could get back in bed at night (I talked more about my experience in this People article). To bring it back to the present, I’m currently not taking any medication for anxiety, yet I feel better than I have in a long time, have more energy, very low anxiety, and haven’t even felt the slightest bit affected by SAD this year. So… what’s different? I think there are probably a lot of contributing factors (for example, learning to say "no" more often, or my newfound love for yoga), but one thing drastically changed over the past year that I think made the biggest difference. And that’s my eating habits.
So… What Changed?
At the very core, there are some very fundamental things that changed in my diet: I cut out almost all processed foods, added a daily green smoothie, focused on food quality, started counting nutrients instead of calories, and the most important part: I always have ingredients or a prepared meal on hand for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The last one is really key – I never allow myself to skip meals or get to the point of being overly-hungry.
I’ll give you a little comparison.
Let’s rewind back to three or four years ago. I would wake up, realize that I didn’t have any ingredients to make breakfast, so I would decide to skip it. After working a few hours, I would head to the bakery next door for a cinnamon roll and a sugary coffee drink. I would spend the rest of the morning in "work mode," and then around 2pm realize that I was absolutely starving and, again, didn’t have food in the house. I might order a Jimmy Johns sub or get in the car and pick up a Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich, fries and a Coke. When dinnertime finally rolled around, I would heat up a Lean Cuisine in the microwave (I seriously thought this was a "healthy" dinner!). For dessert, I might have a glass of wine and some candy.
Here’s a snapshot of one day last week: I woke up, made two scrambled eggs (pasture-raised) with a teeny bit of grass-fed butter, along with a cup of coffee. Mid-morning, I whipped up a green smoothie with spinach, banana, ginger, turmeric, mango, and celery (you can find my recipe here). For lunch, I had a huge veggie and spinach salad already prepared in my fridge. I got a little hungry while I was working in the afternoon, so I ate a handful of raw almonds and cashews. Chris got home from work around 5:30, and around 6 we started cooking one of our favorite meals: Italian meatballs (from organic, grass-fed beef) with spicy tomato sauce and spaghetti squash. For dessert, I had two squares of my favorite dark chocolate.
It wasn’t until about six months of eating this way, that one day it dawned on me… I hadn’t had a single panic attack in the past six months. And what about anxiety? It was almost completely absent from my life… in fact, things were going so well that I hadn’t even noticed my anxiety was gone. It took me a while to realize the root cause for this, but when I did it was like a lightbulb going off in my brain – the realization that how you eat can actually help fix – or fuel – anxiety. Looking at my past diet, I recognize now how my huge spikes of hunger seemed to "prime" my body for an anxiety attack, and the foods I chose were over-processed, full of chemicals and preservatives, and contained almost no nutritional value. My energy levels were incredibly unstable, and I may have been meeting my caloric needs for the day, but there is no way I was hitting my nutrient needs!
Here’s a little breakdown of exactly how I eat these days.
My Current Eating Habits
Cut Out Processed Foods
If it has an ingredient list with names you can’t pronounce, cut it out of your diet! If it has preservatives and refined white flour or sugar, don’t even keep it in your house – these items are empty calories and can lead to spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. I rely on whole foods for nearly everything I put in my mouth – that means lots of fruits and vegetables, greens, nuts, seeds, eggs, herbs and spices, etc. We cook almost every single night in our house, too, so we know exactly what’s in our meals. This cookbook has been a wonderful addition to our kitchen – we’ve made probably a dozen recipes from it and every dish has been amazing.
Count Nutrients, Not Calories
Did you know that you can be meeting your caloric needs for the day, but still be "undereating?" This can easily happen if you aren’t hitting your nutrient scores for the day. Calories are not a good indicator of the worth, nutrition, and vibrancy of a food – they’re a metric of energy, not nutrition. A rice cake has less calories than an avocado, but which do you think has more nutritional value? When you’re eating nutrient-dense foods, you don’t even need to count calories – your body is intelligent, it will let you know when you’re hungry and when you’re full. If you really listen to those hunger cues and fill up on satisfying whole foods, your body will naturally reach homeostasis and you’ll be able to maintain your perfect weight. And counting nutrients is honestly fun. I actually have turned it into a little competition with myself, to see just how many nutrients I can pack in during a day!
Drink Water All Day Long
Another big change in my diet was drinking more water. For a long time, I "didn’t like the taste of water" and I hardly drank any at all throughout the day (I probably didn’t like it because it tastes plain when compared to sugary sodas). Looking back, I’m almost positive I was in a constant state of dehydration. Research has even linked mild dehydration to depression and anxiety, and it totally makes sense when you think about it: every system in the human body counts on water to function, and the brain is no exception (in fact, about 75 percent of brain tissue is water). Long story short, dehydration causes your brain to slow down and not function properly, which can lead to a whole bunch of cognitive problems, including feelings of anxiety and depression. Over the past year, I cut out pretty much all sodas and sports drinks and started thinking of water is an important nutrient that I need to continue to take in throughout the day.
Prepare in Advance
This last point is absolutely KEY for me. In years past, I never used to plan out my meals and this often lead to me skipping breakfast or lunch and then feeling overly hungry and searching for any food I could get my hands on. I really think these spikes of hunger indirectly impacted my spikes of anxiety (even though I didn’t realize it at the time). Now, I make sure to plan ahead. I do all of our grocery shopping on Sundays and spend at least a few hours preparing lunches and snacks for the week. Because we cook so often, we usually have healthy leftovers in our fridge at pretty much every moment in time. Because our refrigerator and pantry are so well-stocked, I never have to question what I’m going to eat or feel tempted to run out for fast food. My energy levels feel stable all day long, and my body never has to worry about whether or not it’s going to get fed on time. It truly has been life-changing.
I do want to put a disclaimer out there that this is just the story of what worked for me. I’m not encouraging ANYONE to go off of their anxiety medication or anything like that. But regardless if you do suffer from anxiety or not, these are all great tips and will still benefit your body and mind. As Hippocrates said a looong time ago: "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." After having experienced the benefits myself, I truly believe in the power of good nutrition and eating whole foods, especially vegetables! I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions below!