Not everyone with anxiety experiences it the same way—or for the same reasons. Sometimes, I don't even know why I'm feeling anxious. I just am. Other times, like if public speaking is involved, it's almost a given that my heart will race and my stomach will feel queasy.
As Well+Good's food editor, I'm well aware of the mind-gut connection and that certain foods can boost your happiness levels. But experiencing anxiety isn't quite the same as feeling depressed (though the two are often coupled). Recently, I've noticed that scientists are linking the high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet to the treatment of certain psychological disorders including depression and anxiety, but also bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). That seems pretty darn powerful, right?
So besides being the diet of choice for Vanessa Hudgens, Adriana Lima, and yes, even Kim Kardashian, the mental health benefits were enough to really intrigue me. I decided to commit to the ketogenic diet for a month to see if I noticed a difference in my body and mood.
Can the ketogenic diet ease anxiety? Keep reading to find out.
Meeting the nutritionists celebs swear by
If I'm going to do this, I'm going to go all in, so I schedule an appointment with Charles Passler, DC, a nutritionist and life coach to whom celebs including Bella Hadid, Adriana Lima, Sara Sampaio, and Amber Valletta, to name a few, have turned. I've heard rumors of his ability to infuse anxiety-reducing techniques with a personalized diet recommendation, and I'm curious to learn more.
At 6:30 p.m., I'm Dr. Passler's last patient of the day. Two hours later, we're only through half of what he had wanted to talk about—and he hasn't even mentioned food. Instead, we talk about stress. (And I schedule a follow-up appointment for a few days later so we can go over my meal plan.)
Two hours later, we're only through half of what he had wanted to talk about—and he hasn't even mentioned food.
"When your cells are under stress, they don't function properly and even sometimes die," Dr. Passler says. "That leads to inflammation." To make sure your cells aren't stressed out, Dr. Passler says it's important to manage eating habits, hydration, breathing, exercise, and sleep. If you don't get enough water, your cells can become inflamed. Ditto for if you don't get enough sleep.
As for exercise, his recommendation is to stay in the fat burning zone (a la Orangetheory's method). "But I like intense cardio!" I complain. Too bad. According to Dr. Passler, "the reason why that's not as good for you is because it puts the body into fight-or-flight mode, stressing out your cells. That raises your cortisol level and leads to inflammation."
"Can we talk about diet now?" I ask him at my second appointment. After telling him that I'm interested in trying keto for the anxiety-reducing benefits, he agrees it could be a good fit for me. (He also recommends I lose 7 percent of my body fat, which he says the ketogenic diet would help me do.) But first, I would have to do a cleanse.
"The ketogenic diet works better when your gut is completely healed," Dr. Passler explains. It's not exactly what I signed up for, but it seems too late to back out now.
Dr. Passler put me on his seven-day Pure Change detox: One wellness shake in the morning, a protein bar a couple hours later, a second shake in the afternoon, veggies and a palm-size portion of protein for dinner, and another bar for dessert. (And also 12 supplements every day.)
For me, this is very, very hard. Aside from it just not being much solid food, I'm used to having an oat milk latte or matcha every morning and wine nearly every night. For breakfast, I typically eat oatmeal, and after dinner, I pretty much always have something sweet. In my world, a protein bar doesn't count as dessert.
The first two days are okay, but by the third day, I'm feeling depressed—really depressed.
The first two days are okay (not stellar, but fine), but by the third day, I'm feeling depressed—really depressed. I'm too weak to exercise, so I can't go to my weekly running club meet-up. I have to skip out on the ritual of going to my favorite coffee shop in the morning—which, TBH, is as much as a pick-me-up as the caffeine itself. And it's hard for me to focus at work. After almost passing out in the shower on the fourth day, I call Dr. Passler, holding back tears. I don't want to quit, but I feel really, really sick.
He tweaks the detox, allowing me have matcha in the mornings—still no coffee—and says I can start having protein and veggies for lunch, while still keeping the shake in the afternoon. The changes end up making a huge difference and I'm able to get through the last few days without having a breakdown—or a binge-fest. "Cutting out caffeine, sugar, carbs, and alcohol all at once might have been too much for your body," he tells me. But at least the detox was done. Now it's time to go keto.
Rethinking my relationship with food
Now that I'm blessedly off the detox, Dr. Passler draws up a model ketogenic meal plan for me to follow. The best news was I could have coffee again. (And seriously, not a moment too soon.) The biggest change for me was cutting way back on grains. I was used to eating oatmeal, rice, quinoa, and carb-heavy gluten-free pasta substitutes on a regular basis.
Now, I had Bulletproof-style coffee for breakfast. A typical lunch is salad with chicken or salmon, and it's another meat-and-veggie combo for dinner. When 4 p.m. hunger pains hit, I trade out my granola bar for a handful of cashew nuts. And while alcohol isn't off the table completely, I save it for social occasions only, instead making tea or golden milk after dinner. Tea for dessert? Who even am I?!
"Sometimes, you don't have access to the outward things that make you happy, like that latte in the morning."
That's when I realize that, as terrible as the detox was, it did have some mental benefits—it broke diet habits that were so ritualistic I did them without thinking. "Part of the reason for the detox is getting you to rethink your relationship with food," Dr. Passler says. "Sometimes, you don't have access to the outward things that make you happy, like that latte in the morning. It's important to have inner happiness so you don't need outward things to make you happy." I hate to admit it, but the man has a point.
How I feel on the ketogenic diet
To make the ketogenic diet sustainable for me, I'm pretty strict about sticking to it during the week, but on the weekends, I ease up and eat what I want. But a couple weeks in, a funny thing happens: I realize I feel way better during the week than I do on the weekends.
Maybe it's the power of the placebo effect, but I honestly feel amazing when eating within the ketogenic guidelines. "It's all about managing blood sugar levels," Dr. Passler tells me when I press him for an explanation. The diet cut out all the things that spike blood sugar. Not experiencing those consistent ups and downs make it easier to manage anxiety.
"I also want to point out that you don't need to be in full ketosis [when the body burns stored fats instead of glucose for energy] to experience the effects," Dr. Passler says. "You still ate whatever you wanted on the weekends and felt less anxious. The key is being aware of how food changes your mood. Then, you can decide for yourself what's worth it and what isn't."
"You don't need to be in full ketosis to experience the effects."
For me, the mental differences are enough. Now, over two months later, I'm sticking to a ketogenic diet—while still being a bit more YOLO on the weekends. As for that 7 percent body fat? After a month, I was down 2 percent and three pounds. Not a huge number, but Dr. Passler points out something interesting to me when he takes a look at my cells: My water weight is up, so I have actually gained intercellular water weight (water within the cells), which is a good thing. The more water your cells have, the less inflamed they are.
My inflammation is down and so is my anxiety. I certainly can't speak for everyone with anxiety, but for me, this is one change that's truly helped—inside and out.
Originally published November 27, 2018; updated September 25, 2018.
If you're curious about other diet experiments, here's what happens when you eat like a French person and the surprising benefit of cutting out soy, not sugar.
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