Avoid problem foods and beverages


As we have seen, there are many problem foods and beverages which can contribute to mental health issues when they are consumed regularly, or for some, even sporadically. These can be divided roughly into the following categories:

  • Allergenic foods and beverages Kohlboeck, G., Sausenthaler, S., Standl, M., Koletzko, S., Bauer, C., von Berg, A., Berdel, D., Krämer, U., Schaaf, B., Lehmann, I. Herbarth, O. and Heinrich, J. (2012). Food intake, diet quality and behavioral problems in children: results from the GINI-plus/LISA-plus studies. [online] Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 60(4), pp. 247–256. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22677949 [accessed 18 Aug. 2017].
    • These are foods to which you are allergic and can cause a dangerous inflammatory reaction
    • These are also foods to which you may be intolerant, which don’t necessarily cause obvious symptoms, but cause a low-grade inflammation which over the long term can be damaging to the gut
  • Toxic foods and beverages
  • Stimulating and addictive foods and beverages



Below are guidelines on how to avoid these foods and beverages to optimize your mental health.

Keep a food and mood diary for at least two weeks in order to monitor any physical or emotional symptoms which might arise from consuming certain foods or beverages. This can help you monitor the effects of certain foods and beverages – and their elimination – on your mood, sleep, anxiety levels, energy levels, etc.

Eliminate foods and beverages to which you are allergic

If you are allergic to a food or beverage, eliminate it completely and indefinitely, and it is likely that any mental and physical symptoms improve, especially if you follow other guidelines such as healing your gut (which may have been damaged by chronic allergies), optimising your nutrient status, balancing your hormones, etc.

Eliminate foods and beverages to which you are intolerant or sensitive

If you find that you have food intolerances, such as to dairy or gluten intolerance, go off dairy and gluten completely for at least six months, possibly more, and ideally follow a gut-healing protocol.

You could then try to reintroduce them gradually (one item every two days) and monitor your symptoms.

To find out more about how to diagnose food intolerance, you can read more in problem foods and beverages.

If you are not sure which foods you might be intolerant to, try eliminating the following food groups which are found to be common irritants to the gut, for two to four weeks, and then gradually reintroduce them to see if they might also be having a negative effect. Use your food/mood diary to keep track of any changes in your moods according to changes in your diet.

The 7 foods which trigger about 90% of all food intolerances

  • Wheat and other grains with gluten, including barley, rye, spelt and oats
    • Celiac disease is the more extreme case of wheat allergy, however wheat and gluten can also cause milder intolerances which can cause low grade inflammation and which test negative on a gluten intolerance (celiac) test
  • Milk and milk products which contain the milk proteins casein and whey and the milk sugar lactose which are common allergens
    • Fermented milk products such as kefir and yoghurt can be more easily digestible
    • Goat and sheep milk can be more digestible than cow’s milk
  • Eggs
  • Soy
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Nuts
    • Ground nuts: peanuts
    • Tree nuts: such as walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, brazil nuts, and pecans

Less common triggers of food intolerance

Almost any food can trigger an intolerance, however the less common ones include:

  • Corn
  • Gelatin
  • Meat – beef, chicken, mutton, and pork
  • Seeds, often sesame, sunflower, and poppy
  • Spices, such as caraway, coriander, garlic, and mustard
  • Celery

(2017). Common Food Allergy Triggers. [online] WebMD. Available at: www.webmd.com/allergies/food-triggers [accessed 27 Oct. 2017].

  • Certain digestive enzymes can be helpful to aid digestion of common irritants such as gluten, soya or dairy
  • You can supplement with DPP IV (dipeptidyl peptidase IV), which helps the breakdown of casomorphin and gliadorphin, the opioid peptides produced by the metabolism of milk proteins and gluten
    • The bioactive peptides generated from whey protein may also serve as endogenous inhibitors of dipeptidyl peptidase-4 (DPP-4) in the gut Lacroix, I. and Li-Chan, E. (2013). Inhibition of dipeptidyl peptidase (DPP)-IV and α-glucosidase activities by pepsin-treated whey proteins. [online] Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 61 (31), pp. 7500-7506. Available at: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf401000s [accessed 18 Aug. 2017].
    • Digestion of casein and whey produces peptides which stimulate the release of gut hormones such as cholecystokinin and glucagon-like peptide that potentiate insulin secretion Jakubowicz, D., and Froy, O. (2013). Biochemical and metabolic mechanisms by which dietary whey protein may combat obesity and Type 2 diabetes. [online] Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 24 (1), pp. 1-5. Available at: http://www.sbs-italia.it/public/News/allegato10.pdf [accessed 18 Aug. 2017].
  • Food intolerances can cause low grade inflammation which can damage the gut lining

Soaking nuts, seeds, legumes and grains overnight with a pinch of Himalayan or unrefined sea salt can improve their digestibility and potentially reduce intolerance reactions.

Avoid toxic foods and beverages

As well as working out whether you might have an allergy or intolerance to common foods (in which case the foods and beverages to which you are allergic or intolerant are toxic for you), there are certain toxic foods known to be detrimental to optimal mental health, which should be avoided.

As we have seen in imbalance in fats and fatty acids, bad fats can be detrimental to mental health. Processed fats such as hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, trans fats are considered “bad fats” and can be found in:

  • Crackers
  • Crisps
  • Cakes
  • Sweets
  • Biscuits
  • Doughnuts
  • Processed cheese
  • Any deep fried food
  • Margarine

Avoid processed oils such as:

  • Corn
  • Safflower
  • Sunflower
  • Peanut
  • Canola / Rapeseed
  • Soya

Most processed foods – in a box, can or bottle – contain artificial food additives and chemicals to flavour, colour, texture and preserve your food, as well as bad fats, high levels of bad quality salt and sugar. These can all be detrimental to mental health.

Read the labels and avoid all artificial additives and chemicals, and avoid processed foods as much as possible.

Watch out for any numbers or letters which are artificial additives and chemicals.

Avoid MSG – often listed simply as ‘glutamic acid’ or monosodium glutamate on packaging, which is found in most Asian foods and many processed foods:

  • In the body, MSG is broken down into aspartate, which has a similar effect to the chemical sweetener aspartame
  • It can cause headaches, anxiety, over alertness and sleeplessness or insomnia Gluck, M. and Edgson, V. (2010). It Must Be My Hormones. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin Group (Australia), p. 128.

Beware of products containing ‘yeast extract’ or ‘natural flavouring’ as these may be derivatives of MSG.

Beef, chicken and other meats which are not organic and/or grass fed can contain growth hormones, antibiotics as well as pesticide and herbicide residues which can be detrimental to mental health.

  • Organ meats are high in cadmium, which is a non-essential carcinogenic metal
  • Cadmium bio-accumulates at all levels of the food chain, with particularly high levels found in organ meats such as liver and kidney
  • High levels of cadmium are associated with depression Scinicariello, F. and Buser, M. (2015). Blood cadmium and depressive symptoms in young adults (aged 20–39 years). Psychological Medicine, 45 (4), pp. 807–815.
  • However, organ meats are also very nutritious, full of key vitamins and enzymes, and nourishing to the adrenals, and therefore essential for mental health
  • Eat organ meats in moderation only
  • Large ocean fish such as tuna, swordfish, shark, tilefish can contain high levels of mercury
  • Heavy metals such as mercury, lead and aluminium are positively correlated with maternal fish consumption
  • High levels of heavy metals are found in the hair of autistic children
  • Fish consumption is also associated with consumption of cadmium through pollution and is positively associated with depression Berk, M., Williams, L., Andreazza, A., Pasco,J., Dodd, S., Jacka, F., Moylan, S., Reiner, E. and Magalhaes, P. (2014). Pop, heavy metal and the blues: secondary analysis of persistent organic pollutants (POP), heavy metals and depressive symptoms in the NHANES National Epidemiological Survey. [online] BMJ Open, 4 (7), e005142. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4120423/ [accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

If you cannot eat organic, try avoiding the fruits and vegetables with the highest toxic load from pesticides, and focus on the cleanest fruits and vegetables:

  • Focus instead on the Environmental Working Group’s clean fifteen, which are fruits and vegetables which contain fewer pesticides
    • Avocados
    • Sweet corn
    • Pineapple
    • Cabbage
    • Sweetpeas
    • Onions
    • Asparagus
    • Mangos
    • Papayas
    • Kiwis
    • Aubergine
    • Honeydew melon
    • Grapefruit
    • Cantaloupe
    • Cauliflower

Check these lists regularly as there may be new additions or changes.

Avoid addictive and over-stimulating foods and beverages

Avoid addictive foods which can be over-stimulating to the nervous system, hamper sleep, cause mood issues and anxiety, and blood sugar imbalances.

Avoid sugar which can be addictive and over-stimulating, and which can cause blood sugar imbalances and mental health issues such as anxiety, insomnia, hyperactivity etc.:

  • Refined sugar
    • Added to coffee, tea, over fruit, etc.
    • Found in sugar-rich foods and beverages such as biscuits, pastries, confectionery, sodas, culinary sauces
    • Read the labels and watch out for hidden sugars, particularly in pasta, breads, sauces and drinks sweetened with refined sugar
  • “Healthier” sugars
    • Maple syrup
    • Honey
    • Fruit juices
    • Stevia
      • A natural plant-based sweetener, which can still trick your body into craving more sugar
  • Sugar alcohols
    • Erythritol
    • Sorbitol
    • Maltitol
    • Xylitol
  • Products made from refined flour
    • White pasta
    • Pizza
    • White bread
    • Bagels
    • Rolls
    • Wraps
  • Artificial sweeteners
    • Aspartame
    • Acesulfame-K
    • Neotame

Caffeine can be over-stimulating particularly to people who are very sensitive to it. It can cause sleep issues, anxiety, hyperactivity, attention and concentration deficits.

When stress hormones are already out of balance, caffeine can exacerbate symptoms Gluck, M. and Edgson, V. (2010). It Must Be My Hormones. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin Group (Australia), p. 119..

Caffeine is contained in varying amounts in:

  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Sodas such as coke
  • Chocolate

Of these, the only ones to categorically avoid are sodas, as they have no nutritional value. Coffee, tea and dark chocolate however, can contain a multitude of polyphenols and phytochemicals which, in moderation, are beneficial to mental health.

You have to be the judge of how caffeine affects you and whether you need to avoid it altogether or maybe just reduce quantities consumed.

While one glass of red wine per day is said to be good for health, because it contains resveratrol and key polyphenols, alcohol can also negatively impact your sleep, reducing the amount of deep and REM sleep, and raising the stress hormone cortisol.

If you have alcohol addiction it is important not to have a single drink.