Can Sugar Cause Anxiety? How It Affects Your Mental Health

Published June 27, 2022
Sad Woman Stress Eating and Watching a Video on her Smartphone

It's no secret that the foods we eat have an effect on our body. Have you ever eaten one too many sweets ended up with a stomach ache? Whether we like to admit it or not, we've all done it. As a result, we all know that our physical comfort can be affected. But can your diet affect your mental health?

Nutrition experts generally advise that people keep their sugar intake within specific guidelines. However, if you have a mental health concern, such as anxiety, you may need to be more cautious about your sugar intake. Science has taken a dive into the world of nutrition and mental health, and there seems to be a link between the two.

The Relationship Between Anxiety and Sugar

Before we talk about sugar and anxiety together, we need to talk about sugar on its own. First, it's important to know that there are two types of sugar. There are naturally occurring sugars, such as in fruits (fructose), and then there are added sugars.Added sugars are sugars that are added to foods when they are manufactured.

For example, if you consume an orange, you'll consume sugar, but it is naturally-occuring sugar. But if you consume orange juice that has had sucrose (or any other sweetener) added to it, you will consume naturally-occuring sugar from the orange along with added sugar that was used as an ingredient during manufacturing to make the juice sweeter.

It is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that people keep their added sugar consumption to less than 10% of their total daily calorie intake. So if you consume 2000 calories per day, 200 calories or less (50 grams) would come from added sugars.

Now, we can talk about how sugar and anxiety are related. According to the CDC, too much added sugar in one's diet can lead to negative health effects. However, its influence on people's health goes beyond just physical effects. It has mental health effects, as well.

Can Sugar Cause Anxiety?

Research suggests that sugar intake alone is not likely to cause an anxiety disorder. But studies have found a link between anxiety and sugar consumption, although the relationship is not causal.

Several research studies have found that there is an association between added sugar consumption, anxiety symptoms, and the overall severity of the condition. So people with anxiety disorders may be more strongly impacted by their consumption of added sugar. For example, a person with an anxiety disorder may have thoughts of worry. However, if that same person consumed foods with added sugar, their worry-filled thoughts might rise even higher than what they usually experience.

It's important to note that many studies investigating the connection between anxiety and sugar has involved looking at the diets of those who already have an anxiety disorder. Observational studies often noted the types of foods that study participants ate, as well as the quantity of these foods. Then, their anxiety levels were measured.

Sugar's Impact on Overall Health

Research has found that western-cultures, such as the U.S., have diets that include high rates of processed food and refined sugars. This increased amount of sugar is associated with more than just physical health risks. Sugar intake from sweet foods and drinks has been linked to several negative outcomes, including:

  • Increase in depressive symptoms
  • Increased rates of experiencing common mental health disorders, such as anxiety
  • Negative influences on a person's mood

A person's diet can influence physical health as well, including gut health, immune system function, stress levels, and even inflammation. Inflammation in particular has been found to impact brain activity, which can influence anxiety symptoms.

How does what you eat impact inflammation? It all comes down to carbohydrates. Or, as most people call them, carbs. Sugar is a type of carb and the two are often used interchangeably. Carbs have been found to increase the circulation of markers that create inflammation in the body. They can also influence hormone levels. In addition, carbs can change the brain's amount of dopamine, a chemical that makes people happy, and can influence mood.

Young woman having back pain while sitting on desk

The way that these systems are interconnected is one reason why scientists believe there is a relationship between sugar and anxiety. No, sugar has not been found cause anxiety. However, research has discovered that it can increase symptoms of anxiety if the condition is already present.

The Best and Worst Foods for Anxiety

So, studies have found that diet can influence a person's mental health. In the case of sugar consumption, there's a negative influence. But is diet able to have a positive impact on health? According to research, signs point to yes. Studies have found that maintaining a healthy diet can have a positive impact on health.

Best Foods

So what does it mean to have a healthy diet? Although calorie counts may vary from person to person for a variety of factors, such as age and activity levels, some things remain consistent in terms of nutrition. For most people, a healthy diet includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein, and healthy fats in moderation. One study, in particular, found that a diet with more protein, fiber, and fat was able to effectively reduce symptoms of anxiety.

For example, include more fiber-rich foods in your snack selection, such as almonds or carrots. Or, if you're more of a protein person, include more protein-packed foods, like nuts and beans, in your meals. Research has also found that increased fruit and vegetable intake is associated with fewer symptoms of anxiety.

Foods to Consume
Fiber Protein Fats
Whole-wheat pasta Beans Avocados
Chickpeas Peas Fatty fish
Berries Soy Sunflower seeds
Artichoke hearts Peanuts or almonds Eggs
Pears Quinoa Dark chocolate
Brussel sprouts Rice Olive oil

Worst Foods

Are there any foods you should avoid in particular? Science says yes. Foods that are high in processed sugar, have been linked to increased anxiety symptoms. According to research from Cambridge's Journal of Public Health Nutrition, people should monitor and reduce their intake of snacks, high-fat dairy products, sweets and desserts, and carbonated drinks.

Foods to Avoid
Dairy products Sweets and Desserts Drinks
Butter Cake Energy drinks
Flavored yogurt Candy Fruit juices from concentrate
Heavy cream Chocolate Sugar-sweetened drink mixes
Mature/hard cheese Cookies Soda
Whole milk Pudding Sweetened teas

It's important to remember that if you restrict your added sugar intake, it's not a cure-all for anxiety symptoms. However, it can have a positive impact on your mental and physical health. Monitor your diet. Maybe even keep a food journal and write down how you feel after you eat something. Take note of any changes in mood or sensations in the body. After you've taken your own notes, modify your diet to find foods that make you feel good.

A young smiling woman having healthy breakfast in the morning

If you limit the added sugar in your diet, it doesn't mean that you can't eat sugar at all. Go ahead and have that ice cream cone every now and then. There's no need to banish sugar forever. Just remember to eat mindfully. Allow yourself to savor and enjoy the moments when you have sugar. It's all about moderation. You may be able to reduce your anxiety symptoms one food swap at a time.

Can Sugar Cause Anxiety? How It Affects Your Mental Health