How Food Can Help Ease Anxiety

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What You Need to Know:

  • Making smart food choices with some common ingredients can induce calm and happiness.
  • Avocado, salmon, almonds, oatmeal and turkey are just a few of the foods that can make you feel better.
  • In Blissful Basil, Melillo gives tips on how to change your relationship with food.

By Sarah McColl

Ashley Melillo’s new cookbook, Blissful Basil, begins in an unusual way. The longtime blogger and Instagram celeb doesn’t start with pantry staples, helpful techniques, or menu suggestions (though those come later). Instead, Melillo, also a psychologist, shares a story she’s never publicly told in her six years of blogging: How anxiety in her early twenties manifested itself as a variety of maladies including sharp, shooting stomach pains and an ever-present “life-swallowing quality.”

Melillo uses her personal story as a vehicle to share abundant, approachable wisdom about how food can be one of the tools we use to ease anxiety. But her journey wasn’t a simple nor quick one: “Just as there isn’t a quick path or permanent route to happiness, there isn’t a quick fix or magical pill to dissolve anxiety,” she says. “But one thing became clear to me: As my ratio of plant-based foods to animal-based foods increased, that undercurrent of anxiety began to fade.” 

“As time unfolded, I discovered that my body didn’t just function on plants—it thrived on plants. My energy and motivation increased, my skin glowed, my hair shined, my thoughts cleared, and my heart opened to possibility. That undercurrent of anxiety softened further, and in its wake, a sense of peace, calm, and hopefulness reverberated within me. And it proved, without question, that the small choices I made day in and day out gathered together over time to affect my entire state of being. Do I feel happier now than I did all those years ago? Absolutely. But far more importantly, I feel whole.”

As Melillo knows, there are a variety of foods that help reduce or mitigate stress: Magnesium-rich foods such as dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds help regulate the hormone cortisol, released in response to stress. So do ingredients with Omega 3s, like salmon, mackerel and sardines, and those abundant in vitamin C, such as oranges, grapefruit, red peppers and kale.

Foods with potassium, such as sweet potatoes, bananas, coconut water and avocados, and those containing the protein lactim, found in milk, aid in lowering blood pressure. There is evidence that a deficiency in vitamin B and folic acid can be linked to feelings of anxiety and depression so B-rich foods like sardines, avocados, almonds, and folic-acid powerhouses lentils, broccoli, and asparagus might help you feel good. Finally, tryptophan, found in turkey and oatmeal, not only makes you sleepy but raises your happiness hormone, serotonin. So, gobble, gobble when feeling blue.

Blissful Basil book cover

Besides featuring all of those foods in Blissful Basil, Melillo also offers 5 tips that have proved transformational for her relationship with food:

Eat For Self-Care, Not Self-Sabotage
“To me, Blissful Basil represents the process of unearthing a greater sense of contentment, joy, and peace through the foods we eat,” she says. “When we eat in a way that honors our bodies’ unique needs, we exemplify a form of self-love and allow ourselves to thrive.” Her soothing power bowl of Spicy Cauliflower Rice, Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Avocado Mash (recipe below) is self-care we can get behind.

Our Food Choices Are Not Our Identity
Some of us have been slow to embrace vegan baked goods, green juice, and almond milk in our coffee. We just didn’t think we were that person.“Much like our political and spiritual views, we hold diet and lifestyle choices very close to our hearts,” Melillo said. “While it’s not problematic to associate the way we eat as part of who we are, I think we back ourselves into a troublesome corner when any one choice becomes our entire identity,” she said. In other words, be wary of limiting labels. Maybe you feel like a glowing goddess eating a vegan diet most of the time, but you just can’t say no to your mom’s killer carnitas. That’s OK.

Don’t Overlook The Tortoise Approach To Change
Nothing needs to happen overnight. “I was vegetarian for 3 1/2 years and then transitioned to a vegan lifestyle over a six-month period of time,” Melillo said. “The slow and steady shift allowed me the time and space needed to effortlessly adjust, problem-solve, and prepare along the way, which made the process more manageable than it might have been had I jumped in head first.”

It’s OK To BYO
Opting out of social fun for dietary reasons is no fun. “For holiday gatherings and other celebrations, I offer to make and bring a dish or two so that I feel satisfied and can partake in an equal yet different variety of deliciousness,” Melillo says. Bonus points: The hosts are happy, too. “They’re often unsure what they should cook for ‘the vegan.’ And we all know what that sort of cooking uncertainty leads to a stripped-down garden salad.”

Be Flexible And Go With The Flow
“Just because I feel my best when I eat whole, plant-powered foods doesn’t mean that I strive for a perfect plate. I eat my fair share of vegan cookies, chocolate, and processed goodies, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Melillo said. And then, when it’s time to go to her routines, she picks up on the signals. “Once my body’s had enough, it’s quick to let me know (cue the kale salad and green juice cravings).”

She added this sentiment on her blog, one we want to print and keep in the car, at our desk, and on the bathroom mirror:

“Life flows in the most effortless ways when we pause from the hustle long enough to hear the wisdom of our intuition, trust in the guidance we receive and honor it accordingly,” she wrote. “It’s kind of amazing.”

Spicy Cauliflower Rice, Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Avocado Mash

  • Serves: 2-4
  • Total Time:45 minutes or less
  • PRINT Print This Recipe

Ingredients

  • 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
  • 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil or other heat-tolerant oil
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1 medium head cauliflower, cored and cut into florets (about 6 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  • 5 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
  • 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, quartered
  • 2–3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or rice vinegar
  • 1–2 tablespoons reduced-sodium tamari*
  • 1–2 tablespoons chile-garlic paste or Sriracha
  • 1/4 cup chopped chives
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 ripe avocado, halved, pitted, and peeled
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice or to taste
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Sea salt, to taste

Directions

  1. Follow the directions to prepare Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Spicy Cauliflower Rice and Avocado Mash.
  2. Spoon the sweet potatoes and cauliflower into bowls, snuggling them alongside one another. Top with a generous dollop of the avocado mash.
  3. Refrigerate the leftover cauliflower rice and sweet potatoes in separate airtight containers for up to 3 days. The avocado mash is best when fresh.
Note:

No Soy? No Problem. To keep this dish soy-free, swap out the reduced-sodium tamari for coconut aminos.