Anxiety symptoms sometimes appear without any warning. One moment you’re fairly calm and relaxed. The next, a familiar tension settles into your chest. You feel dizzy and lightheaded, your palms sweat, and you find yourself struggling to catch a breath.
After living with anxiety for some time, you may start to recognize a pattern. Perhaps you notice your mood quickly takes a turn toward anxious when you encounter specific triggers, such as an important work meeting, a packed schedule, or annoyance in your partner’s voice.
For some people, anxiety shows up after eating.
Managing anxiety symptoms typically starts with learning to avoid key triggers and finding productive ways to manage those you can’t avoid.
Eating is, of course, an unavoidable trigger. But there’s usually more to the picture when it comes to anxiety after eating. Here’s a look at the likely culprits.
If you have reactive hypoglycemia, you’ll experience low blood sugar after eating, usually within a few hours. This drop in blood sugar, which typically follows an increase in insulin production, can make you feel anxious, irritable, and even a little confused.
You might also notice other physical changes that resemble anxiety symptoms, like:
- a racing heart
- increased sweating
Foods high in sugar and processed carbohydrates often trigger reactive hypoglycemia, but symptoms can also develop when you consume alcohol or caffeine on an empty stomach.
How to handle it
Keeping a food diary for one week can help you notice patterns, like whether symptoms generally occur at specific times of day or after eating certain foods.
These tips can also help:
- Include more whole grains and fiber in your diet.
- Choose lean proteins, such as eggs, fish, and poultry.
- Snack on fruit and healthy fats like nuts, plain yogurt, and avocado.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine, especially before eating.
- Start your day with protein and complex carbs.
Reactive hypoglycemia can sometimes have an underlying medical cause, so it’s best to see your healthcare provider if dietary changes don’t lead to improvement.
If you’ve recently had stomach surgery or take medication to control blood sugar, talk to your doctor right away.
Certain foods can provoke anxiety symptoms even if they don’t directly affect your blood sugar.
Some potential triggers include:
- cheese, cured meats, and other fermented foods that contain the neurotransmitter histamine
- caffeine, which can disrupt sleep and worsen anxiety symptoms
- trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils)
- white flour, sugar, and other refined carbs, which can cause adrenaline spikes that trigger panicky or anxious feelings
How to handle it
You may not need to give these foods up entirely, but keeping a food diary can help you track any patterns between consumption and increased anxiety.
When it comes to sugar, in particular, take care to read labels and check the amount of sugar in any packaged foods you eat. Prepared meals, pasta sauce, flavored yogurt, and condiments often contain more sugar than you’d think.
Research from 2019 suggests a strong link between anxiety and cravings for sweet foods, so you may find sugar extra tough to avoid.
Next time a sweet craving hits, try naturally sweet fruits, such as dates, raisins, pineapple, or strawberries, to satisfy your sweet tooth without added sugars.
A few other tips:
You might notice:
- difficulty breathing
- tightness or swelling in your throat
- tingling or numbness in your mouth
- nausea or stomach pain
- rapid heartbeat
These symptoms can come on very rapidly, but they might not appear for an hour or two after eating. Exercise after a meal can often trigger them.
Many people have food sensitivities, which aren’t the same as allergies. Common sources of sensitivity include:
Again, a food diary is a key tool for identifying whether these symptoms relate to specific foods. Tracking symptoms for a few weeks can offer more insight on potential causes of an allergy.
Food allergies that involve severe symptoms can lead to anaphylaxis, a serious condition that requires emergency medical treatment.
Seek emergency medical care if anxiety symptoms that appear shortly after eating involve:
- sudden low blood pressure
- racing pulse
- fainting or dizziness
- difficulty breathing or swallowing
If you’re trying to address specific patterns or behaviors around eating, you might feel anxious after slipping up.
Say you decided to cut red meat from your diet but find yourself craving a cheeseburger 3 weeks in. Deciding one burger won’t demolish your long-term health goals, you stop by your favorite restaurant to pick one up.
After your meal, you suddenly feel upset and panicky. “I was doing so well,” you think. “What if I start wanting red meat all the time again? What if I can’t give it up this time?”
How to handle it
It’s normal to worry about what a slipup might mean for future success, but try not to let this frustrate you. Instead of giving yourself a hard time, remind yourself new habits take time. Focus on the progress you already made.
Unpleasant memories often produce anxious feelings, and food-related experiences are no exception.
Say you and your partner had a serious disagreement while eating chicken tikka masala at your favorite Indian restaurant. That emotional tension and fear might return whenever you eat that same dish or even a different meal at the same restaurant.
If you choked on popcorn during a date or got food poisoning from the sandwich buffet at work, you might, understandably, feel anxious when trying those foods again.
Plenty of sensations that happen during eating can also create feelings of anxiety. Fullness, a touch of indigestion or heartburn, or tightness in your chest after a large bite all happen occasionally, but they can still contribute to uneasiness after eating.
Even though these “warning signs” don’t truly relate to increased worry or stress, they could end up making you feel anxious all the same — especially if you begin to feel anxious about feeling anxious.
How to handle it
There’s no need to force yourself to eat things that trigger discomfort, especially if you’re worried about getting sick. Don’t worry if you need to try those things again slowly.
If your fears prevent you from a favorite food or restaurant, however, it could help to address them with a therapist.
Anxiety after eating doesn’t necessarily mean you have an eating disorder, but it can sometimes suggest potentially harmful eating patterns.
Other key signs of disordered eating include:
- anxiety around mealtimes, especially when eating with others
- guilt or other distress after eating foods you consider “bad” or unhealthy
- nervousness or guilt if you believe you’ve eaten too much
- anxiety after eating that persists until you exercise, skip your next meal, or purge
- extreme choosiness about foods you eat
Many complex factors contribute to eating disorders, including:
- low self-esteem
- body image issues
- weight stigma and bullying
- family history
How to handle it
Disordered eating can be hard to address on your own, but there’s no shame in reaching out for help.
If you regularly experience anxiety after eating and become increasingly preoccupied with food, dieting, and the shape and size of your body, a therapist can offer compassionate, confidential support.
At first glance, anxiety may seem completely unrelated to food, but the interaction between your brain and stomach, called the gut-brain axis, means digestive health plays an important role in mental health.
To make things more complex, this link goes both ways. Feeling anxious can prevent you from relaxing and digesting food properly, and poor digestive health can create more stress in your life.
Eating is a must, so be sure to follow up with your healthcare provider if you continue to experience anxiety after eating or find that the anxiety is making it difficult to eat.