Sarah Wilson, founder of I Quit Sugar, recently released an anti-anxiety diet, which she says can help reduce symptoms of anxiety—but does it actually work?
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Chances are you've either personally struggled with anxiety or know someone who has. That's because anxiety affects 40 million adults in the United States every year, and about 30 percent of people experience anxiety at some point in their lives. There are many ways anxiety manifests itself—panic attacks, stomachaches, autoimmune disorders, and acne, just to name a few—but it's often life-altering. (P.S. Here's why you should stop saying you have anxiety if you really don't.)
With so many people suffering, there's increased attention on finding a solution for anxiety. Sarah Wilson, a clean-eating guru best known for her multi-platform business I Quit Sugar, is joining scientists and mental health professionals in their fight toward better mental health.
In April, Wilson released a memoir about her own anxiety, called First We Make the Beast Beautiful, in which she details her personal struggle and outlines the coping strategies that worked for her. Alongside the memoir, she released a two-week program and plan—out now as an e-book—which she calls The Anti-Anxiety Diet. (To avoid confusion, it's worth mentioning that another expert in the wellness space, dietitian Ali Miller, R.D., released her own version of the anti-anxiety diet as well—which uses a slightly different approach than Wilson. Miller's 12-week plan implements some of the anti-inflammatory protocols that Wilson details below, but also requires that her followers use keto diet food guidelines.)
Wilson explains that her plan is based on the research-backed claim that anxiety is not just a chemical imbalance in the brain, but that it's also a result of inflammation and imbalances in the gut. "Research suggests that mood disorders have a lot to do with your lifestyle choices and what you eat," she says. "This means that the 'fix' for anxiety might not (only) be medication and therapy, but a few sensible dietary changes too."
It certainly sounds compelling—but is a two-week sugar detox really enough to reduce anxiety? Below, Wilson explains the eight dietary shifts she claims can help reduce symptoms of anxiety. Plus, we'll outline whether or not they work, according to research and other experts.
The 8 Rules of the Anti-Anxiety Diet
Wilson's anti-anxiety diet isn't based on counting calories or macronutrients, nor is its goal to aid in weight loss (though that may be a happy side effect for folks currently eating the "standard American diet"). Rather, the diet follows eight simple rules.
Unsurprisingly—given Wilson's OG business endeavor—the first rule is to cut sugar (more on that below). However, she emphasizes that "this diet is not about what you can't eat, it's about what you can eat." The other seven rules are about what to eat more of.
Together, she says, these rules have three main functions (all of which lead to decreased anxiety): Help interrupt the sugar and blood sugar roller coaster, reduce inflammation, and repair your gut microbiota.
1. Quit sugar.
Quitting sugar—one of the seven most addictive legal substances—is rule number one. "Anyone can benefit from cutting back on or quitting sugar," says Wilson. "But if you're anxious, reducing sugar in your diet is a must." In fact, there have been studies that show a correlation between anxiety and higher-sugar diets.
That's why Wilson's approach is to crowd out the bad stuff (sugar) with the good stuff. Her tip aligns with the World Health Organization's recommendations that adult women consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day. (Hint: If you don't know how to find the number of teaspoons of added sugar in a serving, divide the number of grams of sugar listed on the label by 4.2.)
2. Eat more foods with tryptophan.
Yep, as in the amino acid in turkey that makes you sleepy.
Why? The neurotransmitters in your brain and body are made from amino acids that you can only get via dietary protein. "If you don't get enough of these aminos—especially tryptophan—there's not enough to synthesize serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which can lead to mood issues," she explains. And, yes, research suggests that this is true. (FYI: Serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are all neurotransmitters important for mood regulation.)
Her suggestion is to eat three servings of protein such as turkey, chicken, cheese, soy, nuts, and peanut butter, a day. The only caveat is to opt for grass-fed or free-range animal-products when possible because grass-fed meat has been shown to have higher levels of omega-3s, which reduce inflammation.
3. Feast on fish.
Research has shown that one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in patients with mental disorders is a lack of omega-3 fatty acids, says Wilson. We still don't know whether that omega-3-deficiency is a cause or effect of mental issues, but she suggests adding long-chain fatty-acid-rich fish like anchovies, herring, salmon, and trout to your diet two to three times a week. (If you're vegetarian, these meat-free foods offer a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids.)
4. Prioritize fermented foods.
By now you've probably heard that fermented foods contain good-for-your-gut probiotics. But did you know that one study found that those who eat fermented foods have fewer symptoms of social anxiety? That's why Wilson suggests eating one cup of full-fat plain yogurt or 1/2 cup of sauerkraut every single day. (Note: Some sauerkraut is just pickled in vinegar, so make sure that if you're getting store-bought kraut it's actually fermented.)
5. Supplement with turmeric.
"The best way to eat turmeric is with a source of fat like coconut oil for bio-availability and black pepper which helps with absorption," she says. This guide on how to add turmeric to pretty much every meal can help you get the most out of the spice.
6. Eat more healthy fats.
The last time there was an avocado shortage, widespread panic ensued. So, chances are, you already eat some healthy fats. But Wilson wants you to eat even more healthy fats—in the form of olive oil, butter, coconut oil, nuts, and seeds. (Related: 11 High-Fat Foods a Healthy Diet Should Always Include)
That's because one study found that when men ate a high-fat diet (with 41 percent of their calories coming from fat), they reported fewer incidents of anxiety than the other group. More fat, less stress? Deal.
7. Gobble leafy greens.
You already know there are tons of benefits to getting your recommended servings of veggies each day. Well, in the name of improved mental health, Wilson suggests getting seven to nine servings a day (of green leafy veggies, specifically). (More incentive: Science Says Eating More Fruits And Veggies Can Make You Happier)
"Kale, spinach, chard, parsley, bok choy, and other Asian greens are chock-full of b vitamins and antioxidants and are all great options," she says.
8. Sip bone broth
The benefits of bone broth are well known and well worth the buzz. That why Wilson recommends you "drink one cup of stock a day to help improve digestion, reduce inflammation, and reduce stress."
So, Does the Anti-Anxiety Diet Work?
The basic guidelines—eat no sugar, but emphasize tryptophan, turmeric, healthy fats, fish, fermented foods, leafy vegetables, and bone broth—seem easy and healthy enough. But can following them actually help reduce anxiety? According to other experts, it actually might.
"I believe that nutrition therapy—the manipulation of nutrient intake to treat or prevent disease and improve physical and mental health—is sometimes more effective than traditional medicine," says dietitian Kristen Mancinelli, R.D.N., author of Jump Start Ketosis.
And self-proclaimed biohacker Dave Asprey, founder and CEO of Bulletproof, believes that diet can be used to fight anxiety, specifically: "It's true that when your gut bacteria is out of balance, it sends signals to your brain via the central nervous system, which can trigger changes in your mood and lead to mood disorders," he says. That's why he says a healthy gut will have a direct impact on your anxiety levels—and why eliminating sugar, eating anti-inflammatory foods, and consuming healthy fats are all tenets of his Bulletproof Diet, which has also been said to calm anxiety. (BTW: Everything You Need to Know About Biohacking Your Body)
Here's the thing: Wilson doesn't have any formal education in food, nutrition, or dietetics, and she's not a licensed psychologist. And as of yet, there's been no research specifically on Wilson's anti-anxiety plan (or on the other specific diets that are cropping up and promising to reduce symptoms of anxiety). Research does confirm, though, that there may be anxiety-reducing and gut-health benefits to each of the rules in her program. Otherwise, any anxiety-reducing benefits of the specific two-week plan are largely anecdotal.
Should You Try the Anti-Anxiety Diet?
Ultimately, finding what works best for you is key. If you think you're suffering from anxiety (or another mental health issue), your first line of defense and best bet is to find a mental health care provider to talk to so that you can create a plan of action. Together, you may agree that tackling anxiety through dietary shifts may be one piece of the puzzle toward more sound mental health. (These Anxiety-Reducing Solutions for Common Worry Traps could help too.)