Protein is a BIG topic in the world of nutrition (with many conflicting theories)! And when it comes to eating to ease anxiety – it’s such an important one to understand in full!
So let’s get into it!
First and foremost, let’s talk about why including high quality protein sources is absolutely essential for keeping anxiety levels at bay!
Why is Protein Important for Keeping Anxiety at Bay?
Here’s the thing: protein is important for quite literally everything!
Protein helps to form the foundation for our bones, muscles, hair, skin, nails, and more!
But not only this, protein is incredibly important for helping to keep hormones balanced (some proteins even act as hormones), supporting immunity, and acts like a messenger within the body!
On top of this, protein is such an important element to include in meals in order to help keep blood sugars balanced and help us to feel satiated!
Furthermore, protein is essential for helping to keep anxiety at bay because…
- When consumed, proteins get broken down into amino acids, which play an important role in the production of neurotransmitters. As an example, the amino acid L-Tryptophan, which is found in poultry, fish, dairy and nuts, acts as a precursor to serotonin (our ‘happy neurotransmitter’)(1). Our bodies need adequate amounts of amino acids to produce adequate levels of mood regulating neurotransmitters which are so important for keeping anxiety at bay.
- As mentioned, protein plays a huge role in helping to keep blood sugars balanced and hormone levels in check. If either of these become imbalanced, they can be huge factors when it comes to triggering anxiety! In eating enough protein, you will be helping to balance both blood sugars and hormones – which goes on to help keep anxiety levels at ease!
- A lot of protein rich foods (listed below) are loaded with other important nutrients that help to ease anxiety. For example, pasture raised eggs contain choline which is a very important brain boosting nutrient. Wild fish is loaded with Omega 3 Fatty Acids which is also a very important brain boosting nutrient and has anti-inflammatory properties within the body! Also most proteins (especially animal based proteins) are iron rich – which is also very important for helping to keep anxiety levels in check.
A recent systematic review on diet and anxiety found a link between higher levels of anxiety and inadequate tryptophan and dietary protein, along with high-fat diets, high intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates, and “unhealthy” dietary patterns (2). This further exemplifies just how important eating enough protein and focusing on diet quality are when it comes to anxiety.
One other note on this topic, is that it’s important to find ‘the right amount for you‘ when it comes to eating protein. This is because contrary to not getting enough, eating too much protein and too little complex carbohydrates can have an adverse effect on anxiety levels.
What are Anxiety Supportive Protein Options?
The good news is that there are SO many amazing anxiety supportive protein options! However, more often than not, it’s actually the QUALITY of how the protein was grown/ raised that matters most!
So here’s what to keep in mind when purchasing protein:
- Ensure it’s organic – this goes for beans, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, hemp hearts, all plant based proteins (veggie burgers, veggie sausages, etc.) and meats!
- When eating meat – ensure it is pasture raised (or wild!) and ALWAYS hormone/ anti-biotic free
- When eating fish – always ensure it is wild and do your best to look for smaller on the food chain
- If it’s a “plant based protein”: ensure it’s made with real whole food ingredients and not loaded with pesticides and additives (I recommend avoiding Beyond Burgers and Impossible Burgers for this reason)
Below are Some of my most Favourite Anxiety Supportive Proteins:
– Chickpeas or hummus: truly one of my FAVES! Check out this recipe for roasted chickpeas – which are great in all sorts of dishes like nourish bowls, salads, and pastas!
– Lentils: such a fibre rich & grounding protein to include regularly in your diet. Not to mention an incredibly affordable and environmentally friendly protein source! Try this recipe for my fave lentil dish!
– Wild fish: such an amazing diet addition for anxiety as they are loaded with brain boosting Omega 3 fatty acids. It’s always best to eat smaller fish, lower on the food chain (to avoid Mercury or microplastic build up)
– Tempeh: another one of my favourite protein options! Most tempeh is fermented soy beans – it tastes amazing in just about anything you would add chicken or tofu to. Because it’s fermented, it makes it highly digestible and some say can mitigate any of the potential negative effects of soy (although I don’t believe moderate amounts of organic soy are detrimental to ones health)
– Tofu: a great plant based protein option to include in your diet and so versatile to add to just about anything – from sandwiches, to wraps, salads, to stir fry’s and so on. Try this recipe!
– Quinoa: although technically a grain – quinoa is one of the few plant based foods that is a complete protein – meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids! It’s a great diet staple for those looking to ensure they’re getting enough protein and complex carbohydrates. This is one of my fave quinoa recipes.
– Wild Meats: if you have the ability to access wild hunted, ethical meats (aka you hunt or be-friend a hunter) – this can be a great protein option as you know they have been living off the land (eating nutritious grasses) and have lived a happy life free to roam! A great example of this is venison (deer) which is very plentiful where I live in the PNW.
– Grass fed, pasture raised organic meats: choosing the highest quality meats can also be an anxiety supportive protein option. Just ALWAYS be sure to avoid factory farmed meat. Not only are factory farmed meats highly unethical – it will not be supportive for anxiety as a lot of these animals are pumped with growth hormones and steroids and live a life of extremely elevated cortisol (stress) levels as their living conditions are far from humane. Energetically not a good option for humans <3 However, opting for pasture raised organic meats where you know the animals have had a good life – can be an incredibly nourishing option, if it feels aligned for you.
– Protein Powder: there are mixed reviews about protein powders, however, if using a high quality organic one and doesn’t contain any additives, flavours, or artificial sweeteners – it can be very anxiety supportive to add to your smoothies in the morning to help keep blood sugars balanced and you feeling more satiated. My favourite is “Botanica Health Perfect Protein – Vanilla”
– Pasture Raised Eggs: perhaps the best for last! Pasture raised eggs are a wonderful anxiety supportive protein source as they are loaded with so many important nutrients such as; many B Vitamins, Iodine, Choline, Vitamin A, Selenium, and more! As goes for meats, always avoid factory farmed eggs and opt for pasture raised, organic eggs.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
The answer to this is so dependent upon the individual!
However as always – here is my rule of thumb:
Always do your best to include 1 quality protein source at every meal! Doing so will likely ensure you are getting adequate amounts within your diet!
It’s also a good idea to include snacks with some proteins and/ or healthy fats (instead of just carbs). For example, an apple with almond butter, rice crackers with hummus, or a berry protein smoothie.
The truth is, protein deficiency is technically very rare – however, eating enough high quality protein is SO important to ensure you’re receiving all the trace nutrients you need (which many protein sources just so happen to have a lot of) and to ensure you’re functioning at an optimal level!
If you want to know more – take a look at this blog post. If you’re struggling with fatigue, low energy, imbalanced hormones, anxiety, or blood sugar highs and lows – it could be a great idea to work with a nutritionist (like myself!) to figure out how you can use your diet to help get to the root of these imbalances!
What’s the Best ‘Diet for Anxiety’ when it Comes to Protein Consumption?
Okay, so to end things off, I want to touch on the topic of what the best diet for anxiety is when it comes to protein choices? There’s often such a debate about whether being vegan/ vegetarian is best, or if people should be focused on more meat centred diets like paleo or keto? And everywhere else between!
In all honestly, my answer is this: you have to do what works best for you and your body! There is no right or wrong answer. It’s a very nuanced topic.
As a nutritionist who focuses on anxiety – I primarily encourage people to consume a plant forward (or plant rich) diet, however I discourage people from subscribing to a particular diet label. This helps to avoid restriction and encourages more intuitive eating.
It’s often true that those who consume a lot of animal protein, feel best from including more plant based protein sources and scaling back on animal sources. Animal protein is not something we need every meal or even every day – so it’s about finding an amount that suites your bodies unique needs. It’s especially important to note again here that it’s QUALITY that always matters most!
However, I’ve also come to learn (based on the many people I’ve worked with and myself) that the opposite is also often true in that often those who are vegan or don’t eat any animal proteins – often benefit A LOT from incorporating some animal proteins back into their diet in helping to ease anxiety levels.
This is because high quality animal proteins (like the ones listed above) are loaded with all sorts of important trace nutrients (that one might be missing if they are chronically stressed) – and for some, eating meat can have a very grounding effect.
For some, the idea of eating meat again might at first feel like it’s going to cause more stress/ anxiety. It’s an important topic for people to explore with self compassion and curiosity as they look inward to decipher what their body is asking for (maybe it’s a few pasture raised eggs from time to time, some wild salmon, a pasture raised burger, or maybe it’s not!). This can be very helpful work to do with a nutritionist to fully explore what aligns best for your body, mind, and soul!
For me personally, I was vegan for 3 years, and then slowly started to include some pasture raised eggs. I was quite hesitant to do so initially, but I felt so good from eating them, that I started to include some wild fish, and now eat meat again as well. Over the past year and a half I’ve been blessed to get to eat all sorts of incredible and ethical meats such as; wild venison, elk, wild boar, pasture raised bison, and pasture raised chicken. We have an amazing friend who hunts in a very caring way which was how I initially started to eat meat again. I find doing so, feels very special and it gives me such a nutrient boost – not to mention I find it incredibly nourishing and satiating! For now, I choose not to eat cow, or pig as this is what feels best for me. I also do my best to avoid “imitation meats” like Beyond Burger, Impossible Burger, or other plant based alternatives that are loaded with additives, not organic, and seem highly processed (a.k.a. not very “whole food based”).
At the end of the day, you have to listen to your body and do what feels right for you. This is something I always work on with clients – helping them connect to their inner knowing, while being educated on the science and theories behind nutrition so they can learn ways of eating that help to ease their anxiety levels – that work best for them!
Please know that this is a safe space and diet shaming or judging is something that I will never condone. It’s all about finding what works for your body and mind, and aligns with you.
The bottom line is that protein is an essential macronutrient we need to be consuming enough of in our diets to support anxiety levels! At the end of the day, it’s quality that matters most!
Some people might do better from starting to include some more animal proteins in their diets and some might do better with lessening those, and including more plant based proteins.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, imbalanced blood sugars, hormonal imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, and/ or anemia (low iron), it can be a great idea to take an extra look at your protein intake with the guidance of a nutritionist like myself, to find out what works best for you!