Food and mental health are so intricately connected that they’ve inspired a new area of brain study: nutritional psychiatry, which examines how what we eat impacts how we feel. While it’s widely known that nutrition plays a key role in a person’s physical health, it directly affects emotional well-being too. We tend to separate our brain from the rest of our body, but good health means good health from a holistic perspective – from top to bottom.
As we observe Mental Health Awareness Month, let us look more closely at the connection between diet and mental health and the steps we can all take to improve our overall lifestyle.
Did you know that people with mental health conditions are at a higher risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and other physical health problems? While most of us recognize that mental and physical health are linked, it can be hard to figure out how to best support our overall well-being. Research shows that specific dietary choices not only support physical health but also directly contribute to mental health.
Foods and Our Moods: What to Eat
Eating healthy food promotes the growth of “good” bacteria, which positively affects neurotransmitter production, and when neurotransmitter production is in good shape, your brain receives positive messages loud and clear, and your mood reflects it. On the flip side, when production goes awry, such as by consuming a steady diet of highly or “ultra-processed“ foods, so might your mood and health.
Further, when you stick to a healthy food diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables and other whole, fresh foods daily, you set yourself up for fewer mood fluctuations, an overall happier outlook, better stress responses, and an improved ability to focus. In addition, eating high-quality foods that contain a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and helps us to thrive.
Best Foods for Better Mental Health
The foods you eat can make or break everything, from your work and productivity to your mental state and physical health. To boost your mood and brain energy levels, put these foods on your grocery list and work them into your daily or weekly diet:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Lentils and other legumes
- Lean grass-fed beef
- Dark chocolate
Nutritional Psychiatry: What Does It Mean for You?
Start paying attention to how you feel when you eat and include different foods— not just in the moment, but also the next day and the day after. To test this out, start by eating a “clean” diet for two to three weeks, which means cutting out all processed foods and added, refined sugars. Notice how you feel. Then, slowly introduce foods back into your diet, one by one, and see if you feel any differently.
For some, “going clean” makes an incredible improvement both physically and emotionally, and many people feel noticeably worse when they reintroduce foods known to promote inflammation.
Eating well means having a balanced diet full of whole, fresh foods including seven to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day, as well as good fats from plant foods daily – to improve your mental health and overall well-being.
- Eat your “three squares”. By eating regularly timed meals, you will keep your blood sugar level steady and help maintain energy and mood throughout the day!
- Stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can affect your mood, energy level, and concentration.
- Your brain needs healthy fats to keep working well. Good anti-inflammatory fats are found in olive oil, rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds, oily fish, and avocados. Avoid trans fats, often found in processed or packaged foods, as they are detrimental to your mood and heart health.
- Include some protein with every meal. Your brain uses amino acids to help regulate mood.
- Mind your gut health. Food to fuel a healthy gut include fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and naturally fermented foods for probiotics.
- Diets high in refined sugars are harmful to the brain and gut health, worsen your body’s insulin regulation, and promote inflammation. Studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function, and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.
- Be aware of how caffeine can affect your mood. It can cause sleep problems, especially if you drink it close to bedtime, and it makes some people irritable and anxious. Coffee, black and green teas, cola, many energy drinks, and chocolate all contain caffeine.
A healthy diet is one way you can improve your mental health. Other important components in a healthy lifestyle include:
- Staying physically active
- Spending time in nature
- Developing good sleep habits
- Avoiding cigarettes and alcohol
The positive news is that most foods and dietary patterns associated with good mental health are often also associated with long-term health benefits. So if you make healthy changes to your diet for your mental health, you most likely will make a positive impact on your physical health.
Mental health is complicated, and many disorders require treatment with medications and therapy. Therefore, diet should be viewed as a way to complement physician-recommended treatments and should undoubtedly be an essential component of your plan to support your mental health.
Would you like to learn more about the connection between mental health and nutrition? Click here to listen to the SENSe of Wellness podcast episode with Dr. Uma Naidoo, a Harvard trained psychiatrist, Professional Chef and Nutrition Specialist.