From the Archives: Freakin’ Fats and Anxiety Attacks

Source rafal_olechowski CC BY-NC-ND istockphoto

Source rafal_olechowski CC BY-NC-ND istockphoto

This post was first published on September 14, 2014. 

I started using a new food tracking app earlier this summer that I heard about through EatRight.org (the website for RDs and RD students).  It’s called HealthWatch360, and according to their promo materials:

HealthWatch 360 connects the dots between your health, nutrition and lifestyle. Monitor 30+ nutrients, count calories and track 500 symptoms. Colorful, interactive charts and trends help you discover patterns.
It’s amazingly simple. (http://www.gbhealthwatch.com/healthwatch360-app/)

I’ve used a lot of food tracking aids in the past.  Previously, my favorite was SparkPeople, which is kind of like WeightWatchers, but free.  But I really, really like this one, for a variety of reasons.  But one of the biggest is that it makes connections between what you eat and various symptoms you’re having.  I’ve been tracking all kinds of stuff, like acne, sleep quality, celiac symptoms, asthma symptoms, and more.

One of the things I wasn’t tracking intentionally but noticed anyway was that the days that I eat a lot of a fat and not a lot of whole grains and good protein, I tend to get really, really bad anxiety attacks right before bedtime. I deal with a fairly constant level of anxiety all the time – but these nasty attacks at night are definitely connected to my diet during the day.

So naturally I did a little research on the topic.  What I’d read previously was that we crave high fat and high sugar foods because they trigger releases of feel good chemicals in our brains (you can see some of my previous posts on this topic), so the fact that they were causing such severe anxiety was a little weird to me.  What I learned from my research made a lot of sense, though.  The most interesting article was about a study done with mice.  The researchers’ basic conclusion was that the high fat comfort foods are sort of the equivalent of drugs – we eat them to feel better, and in the moment, they work.  Those foods actually “light up” the same parts of our brains as drugs would (1).  But then when the fats are being flushed from our systems, we experience something similar to “coming down,” which is what would cause the severe anxiety or depression (2).  This actually fits with what I wrote in my previous post, about how it’s important to balance comfort foods with whole grains and protein – we need them so that the whole “coming down” thing is balanced out and doesn’t affect us so badly.

What really struck me about this study was the way they study the mice. A control group is fed a low fat diet, and the test group is fed a diet high in saturated fats.  (Saturated fats are the bad ones – we can talk about why in another post if you’re interested. I found it fascinating when we covered it in Basic Nutrition last semester, to be honest.  It was one of those things I always heard but never really understood).  After 12 weeks of being on their diets, the mice were “given a series of behavioral tests” (1).  For example, they were placed into a large, unknown, open space.  The mice who were on the low fat diet ran around, explored, and played.  The mice who were on the fatty diet froze up, hid in corners, and didn’t really do anything at all.  They were too anxious and scared.  Sounds familiar!  In another test, which apparently is a common one used for testing anti-depressants, they put the mice into little beakers with water.  The mice on low fat diets swam around and tried to get out; the mice on fatty diets “gave up” and “attempted fewer escapes” (1).  Again, sounds like your basic anxiety attack.

The scientists running the study had a lot of caveats – other studies have had different results than theirs, and there are obviously a lot of other factors that can cause anxiety in people than just high fat content in the diet.  They said that all they saw was a relationship, not any type of cause and effect.  But for me, personally, considering that I’ve been tracking what seems to be a cause and effect between the consumption of fat and my anxiety levels, I think the results of the study are fascinating, and I can definitely relate to the poor mice who just want to hide in the corners and give up fighting.

So, then, what are good foods to eat instead of lots of fats? Most articles I found suggested the usual stuff – whole grains, fruits and veggies, etc.  But one had two very interesting options: almonds and chocolate! Of almonds, it says:

Almonds are an underrated food. They contain zinc, a key nutrient for maintaining a balanced mood – and have both iron and healthy fats. Healthy fats are an important part of a balanced diet, and low iron levels have been known to cause brain fatigue, which can contribute to both anxiety and a lack of energy. (3)

And of chocolate,

Chocolate – especially pure dark chocolate without the added sugars or milks – is also a great food for those living with anxiety and stress. Chocolate reduces cortisol – the stress hormone that causes anxiety symptoms. There are also compounds inside dark chocolate that improve mood. (3)

Of course the key here is that we get the super dark cacao chocolate, “without the added sugars or milks,” otherwise we’re right back where we started at the beginning of this post.

Luckily, chocolate and almonds together are just about the tastiest snack ever!

What about you? Are there any foods that you’ve noticed have a positive or negative affect on your mood? Let me know in the comments!

Sources:

1. Pedersen, T. (2012). High-Fat Diet Linked to Depression, Anxiety in Mice. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 5, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2012/05/28/high-fat-diet-linked-to-depression-anxiety-in-mice/39295.html

2. Rudrow, H. (2012). High-Fat Comfort Foods Could Lead to Anxiety, Depression.  Counseling Today. Retrieved on September 5, 2014, from http://ct.counseling.org/2012/05/high-fat-comfort-foods-could-lead-to-anxiety-depression/

3. The 7 Best Anti-Anxiety Foods. (2009-2014). Calm Clinic. Retrieved on September 5, 2014 from http://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/treatment/7-foods-that-fight-anxiety

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