5 Foods That Can Have A Negative Impact On Your Mental Health

Experts say certain ingredients are known to change your levels of cortisol, serotonin and dopamine, potentially contributing to higher stress levels or anxiety.
Research suggests that consuming more than 250 milligrams of caffeine per day could have a negative impact on anxiety.
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Research suggests that consuming more than 250 milligrams of caffeine per day could have a negative impact on anxiety.

We rarely think about food in relation to our mental health. We worry about it leading to health issues, such as cardiovascular or gastrointestinal problems, but did you know that different foods and beverages can exacerbate anxiety spikes and even bouts of depression?

In fact, there are foods and drinks that therapists and psychiatrists, who have spent their careers advising people on mental wellness, typically avoid ― or consume in moderation ― for the sake of their mental health.

Take this knowledge with a grain of salt. These foods and drinks can be consumed once in a while and not be correlated with negative mental health consequences. Just remember that, as with everything, moderation is key.

Multiple Cups Of Coffee Or Espresso

For some people, too much caffeine can have a negative impact on anxiety. “If a person is prone to feeling anxious or has multiple stressors, know that over-caffeination causes an increased cortisol response and can lead to adrenal fatigue, a recipe for persistent stress and burnout, not to mention sleep issues,” said licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Brittney Jones.

Research suggests that consuming more than 250 milligrams of caffeine per day (that’s roughly 2 1/2 cups) could have a negative impact on anxiety, so Jones does her best to keep her coffee consumption under that amount. And for people who get jitters or anxiety spikes from coffee, consuming caffeine in the form of matcha can be a great alternative since it gives many people a feeling of calm alertness thanks to a compound called L-theanine.

Diet Soda

If you’re looking out for your mental health this summer, you might want to keep your diet soda consumption to a minimum. “Everyone loves a cold diet soda on a warm summer day, but the health concerns outweigh the benefits,” said Dr. Jacques Jospitre, Jr., a board-certified psychiatrist and co-founder of SohoMD. “While we know high-sugar sodas aren’t great for our health, diet sodas might actually be even worse. Many of these contain phenylalanine, which is an added chemical well-known to mess up brain neurochemistry by stopping the proper production of serotonin and dopamine, two molecules we need for good mood.”

Additionally, these drinks have artificial sweeteners like aspartame, “which is a known neurotoxin and may raise stress hormones like cortisol, as well as increase the amount of free radicals in the brain,” Jospitre said.


While a drink or two once in a while isn’t the worst thing, Danielle Tucci, a licensed professional counsellor and the founder of Live Better Therapy Solutions, said she does her best to avoid alcohol when considering her mental health.

“While alcohol consumption is usually associated with social events, alcohol is a depressant and can lead to a negative mood state or the dreaded ‘hangxiety,’” Tucci explained. “This refers to the period where your body is recovering from a hangover and the stress hormone, cortisol, is elevated.”

Highly Processed Foods

Aura De Los Santos, a clinical and educational psychologist, said that when she eats certain processed foods —in her case, pancake mix from the grocery store — it causes anxiety spikes.

“One food that raises my anxiety peak is the box of pancake flour from the supermarket,” she said. “At breakfast time, I enjoy eating pancakes, but I have seen how my body becomes inflamed and how this generates anxiety when I eat these pancakes over two consecutive days. I have trouble concentrating, my mood changes, and I don’t feel calm. Bloating is very uncomfortable, and this negatively affects my mental health.”

Ultra-processed foods can alter bacteria in the gut. This bacteria interacts with our immune system, which eventually leads to chronic inflammation. Inflammation can cause bloating, as De Los Santos noted, but it can also contribute to depression.

One psychologist said pancake mix from the supermarket raises her anxiety levels.
laurileesmaa via Getty Images
One psychologist said pancake mix from the supermarket raises her anxiety levels.

Matt Glowiak, a licensed clinical professional counselor, said that even the “healthier options” in the frozen food aisle could lead to signs of depression.

“These meals contribute toward inflammation in the gut, which is where most serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter) is produced,” he said. “When serotonin is compromised, so is mental health. Upon consumption of ‘healthy’ frozen dinners, I would always feel like I ate a healthy thing and would have more energy in the short term, but then I would experience a crash and a combination of mild depression and anxiety. Now, I just stay away and opt for preparing whole foods.”

Candy (And Sugary Foods In General)

Jason Phillips, a licensed clinical social worker, said he does his best to steer clear of candy. “I will not eat candy like Tootsie Rolls or candy corn,” he said. “This Halloween-type of candy is very sugary, and sugar increases inflammation in the body, which is related to depression.” A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested sugary and starchy foods could contribute to depression.

That being said, the consumption of natural sugar — like the kind found in fruit — is a lot different from the type in candy. In fact, one study found that people who snack on fruit are actually less likely to report symptoms of depression. So while candy and other refined carbohydrate sources might be detrimental to mental health, not all sources of sugar are.