Managing Anxiety- Can Good Nutrition Help?

As reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, anxiety is the most common reported mental health condition in Australia. It affects one in every four people. Anxiety involves feelings associated with nervousness and tension. Specific anxiety disorders may result in physical symptoms such as problems with breathing, shaking, and sweating.

Some ways to deal with anxiety include:

1) Seeking professional help from a GP or psychologist

2) Staying connected with close friends, family or a support group

3) Exercise

4) Complementary therapies such as herbs, yoga, or meditation

5) Improving on diet and nutrition

This post will touch of the complex relationship between our brain, gut, and immune system and why we should support these systems with good nutrition to help improve anxiety.

The Second Brain – connection between our gut and brain

The digestive system has its own complex system of nerves called the enteric nervous system (ENS), which function independently to the central nervous system. The ENS plays a role in digestion, absorption of nutrients, motility, inflammation, nutrient synthesis, and secretion within the gastrointestinal tract. These network of nerves are found all along the lining of our gut.  Our second brain (enteric nervous system) communicates with our ‘real’ brain (central nervous system) via the vagus nerve. There is a bidirectional relationship between our gut and our brain suggesting that what we think/feel in our head may affect our gut function and what we consume, may affect our brain function.

It is important to note that approximately 70% of our immune cells are in our gut. Proper immune function is integral to proper functioning of our whole body. Therefore, it is starting to become evident how the health of our gut may play a role in the health of our brain and ultimately, our overall health.

The ENS, Neurotransmitters and Anxiety

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow signals to cross synapse (biological junction) and transmit information from a nerve cell to target cell. Research has shown that there are high levels of neurotransmitters in the gut. These neurotransmitters play a crucial role in our mood and how we feel.

Dopamine (reward hormone) – low levels can affect our mood, sleep quality, and immune health

GABA (major mood modulator) – low levels can contribute to anxiety, restlessness, and reduced gut motility

Serotonin (‘happiness’ hormone) – low levels may increase risk of anxiety, poor sleep quality, and compromised gut function (90% of the body’s serotonin is found in the gut)

Epinephrine (fight-or-flight hormone) – abnormal levels lead to poor sleep quality, mood disorders, and poor immunity.

How can Nutrition help?

By choosing the right foods, we can support the health of our gut, immune system, and brain which may help reduce the impact that anxiety may have on an individual.

The first step will be removing common foods that irritate the gut and may contribute to dysbiosis (imbalances within gut flora) in the gut. These include added sugar from confectionery, refined carbohydrates, vegetable oils and foods very high in insoluble fibre. Certain individuals with existing gastrointestinal issues may benefit from excluding gluten and lactose containing foods.

What to have instead:

Good quality meats (grass-fed, organic meat where possible) for:

1) Zinc to help heal the gut lining, convert tryptophan to serotonin and for a healthy immune system

2) Vitamin B5 to help maintain a healthy digestive tract

3) Vitamin B12 to maintain a healthy nervous system

4) Glutamine to repair gut permeability

Eggs for:

Choline which is used to make acetylcholine (neurotransmitter), necessary for normal nerve function

Fish (Salmon, sardines, mackerel etc) for:

1) Omega 3 EPA & DHA for overall brain health

2) Vitamin D for a healthy nervous system and immune system

High quality fats (butter, coconut oil, olive oil,) for:

1) Cholesterol for the production of hormones, a healthy nervous system, the maintenance of healthy cell membrane and the production of Vitamin D

2) Butyric acid for the health of our colon cells

A wide variety of different coloured vegetables and some fruit for:

1) Vitamin C to support immune function. It is also needed to work alongside tryptophan to make the neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin and melatonin

2) Prebiotic fibres to feed the healthy bacteria in our gut

Fermented foods and Fermented dairy (sauerkraut, yoghurt, kefir) for:

The growth of friendly bacteria in our digestive tract

Note: Speak to your practitioner about a good quality probiotic.

Healthy snacks such as nuts, cheese, and dark chocolate may also be incorporated. Nutrients and minerals work synergistically so it is important to avoid depending on nutrient-specific supplements to meet your needs. However, this is not to say that they are not extremely helpful to supplement an already good diet to manage certain health conditions.

In summary, a diet low in refined carbohydrate with the inclusion of quality protein sources and high-quality healthy fats may help in managing anxiety.  (i.e.: whole-food, minimally processed diet)

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Mindfulness and Weight Management

This month, our fabulous Metro Dietetics team has presented a range of high quality and evidence-based articles around weight management. Today, I am going to showcase some simple strategies that I like to refer to as the missing puzzle pieces of weight management.

I am not going to lie, these will not guarantee you fast or extreme weight loss results in a short period of time. However, these strategies will help to form the basis of healthy lifestyle modification, which goes hand in hand with modifying the types of foods eaten. Furthermore, these strategies will help to ensure slow and steady behavioural changes, which off-set the vicious effects of yo-yo dieting and weight-cycling. The notion is around MINDFULNESS, which I think is fitting given the cult-like behaviours we are seeing more often around our food choices.

Okay, I’m going to cut to the chase. Please read on if you’re with me.

At this point in time, I am focusing on HOW you’re eating rather than WHAT you’re eating.

Eat slowly, chew well

Have you ever considered the pace at which you eat? This is a big one yet it’s not something we consciously think about. More research is demonstrating that the pace at which we eat can influence the quantity of food we ingest at meal times.

In general, those who eat quickly tend to eat more than their counterparts who eat slowly. It takes roughly 10-15 minutes for our gut to signal to our brain that it is feeling full. Therefore, a person who eats slower is better equipped at recognising their body’s ‘fullness’ signal because they have allowed sufficient time for this response to occur, hence are more likely to stop eating before they overeat. In contrast, those who eat quickly are more likely to have already finished their entire dinner plate before feeling overly full.

Take home message and useful tips:

> Slow down the pace of your eating by chewing your food well

> Swallow your food before starting your next mouthful

> Using smaller cutlery can help you to take smaller mouthfuls

> Place your cutlery on the table after each mouthful

This is not something that can be changed over night – you may need to retrain your brain which could take a number of days or even weeks.

Food psychology is important

Many of us have been programmed since children to finish our plate. As a result, we tend to mindlessly fill up our dinner plate to the brim, then feel the need to gobble up every last mouthful.

One tip I encourage is to reduce the size of your dinner plate, if you’ve identified that this is an issue for you. The psychology behind this is that you’re still creating an illusion that your plate is full, which is in fact correct. However, it’s a smaller amount to what you would have typically served up, prompting you to eat less but still be satisfied with that amount. The key is not to make the PILE of food higher. Remember, there will always be more food to go back to if you are still feeling hungry.

The Great Divide

If you’re still feeling unsure about the amount of food to add to your dinner plate, then this might be the strategy for you: dividing your plate up. This strategy is being adopted more often today, and I think it’s a great one.

Here’s how:

1- Fill up your dinner plate and then divide it in half.

2- Eat one half of your dinner plate.

3- Pause for 10-15 minutes. Remember, you must allow time for your brain to register its level of ‘fullness’. Reassess your hunger levels.

4- If you’ve identified that you’re not quite satisfied, divide your plate in half again, so that you are left with two original-sized quarters.

5- Eat one quarter. Pause for 10-15 minutes.

6- Attempt to stop eating at this point if you feel satisfied after your pause. If not, you are entitled to finish the remainder of your plate.

This will not only help you to slow down the pace of your eating, but will also enable you to become more intuitive with your eating. A dietitian with a special interest in this approach will be able to provide you more guidance around this strategy.

Minimise distractions at meal times

This point goes hand in hand with Point 1. One reason we are likely to overeat at meal times is due distractions including TVs and phones. How much attention are we really paying to what we’re eating, how we’re eating and how much of it we’re eating? The answer is most likely: very little. I challenge you to trial a TV-free or phone-free meal time, at least three times a week. Instead, focus on the actual activity of eating. Pay closer attention to your food. What does it look like, what does it taste like? Was it saltier than you imagined? Perhaps crunchier than you imagined? How quickly are you eating? Do you need to slow down? Familiarise yourself with the food you’re eating, regardless of whether you cooked it or not. You may discover things you’ve never noticed before. Perhaps you may have never appreciated the time and effort that goes into cooking if you do not routinely cook the food yourself.


These topics are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring mindful approaches to healthy eating and weight management. While they may not be applicable to everyone, they certainly make up the fundamentals of our eating habits, but are ironically and consistently overlooked as important aspects of our eating.

If you would like specialised advice around mindful eating, make an appointment to see one of our nutrition experts!



Angelopoulos T, Kokkinos A, Liaskos C, et al. The effect of slow spaced eating on hunger and satiety in overweight and obese patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus. BMJ Open Diabetes Research and Care 2014;2:e000013. doi:10.1136/bmjdrc-2013- 000013

Kausman, R. (2004). If Not Dieting, Then What? New South Wales, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Wilkinson L, Ferriday D, Bosworth ML, Godinot N, Martin N, Rogers PJ, et al. (2016) Keeping Pace with Your Eating: Visual Feedback Affects Eating Rate in Humans. PLoS ONE 11(2): e0147603. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0147603

Willer, F. (2013). The Non-Diet Approach Guidebook for Dietitians. First Edition.  United States: Lulu Publishing Ltd.