From a young age we are taught to connect the food we eat with our physical health; think of how often you heard “you are what you eat” growing up. We may not be what we eat, but we are what we absorb. What many of us do not put together is the direct impact the food we consume has on our mental health, and the nutrients we absorb can lead to both digestive issues and our mental health. In addition to consistent exercise and adequate sleep, proper nutrition is one of the fundamental elements of overall personal well-being and growth. Everything from genetics to the changes in our diets, to prenatal nutrition can affect our mental health in both positive and negative ways.
What to Eat:
It goes without saying that maintaining a healthy diet (and therefore better mental health) has to include plenty of fruits and vegetables and few to no processed foods on a regular basis. A good way to maintain this is to make it a priority to cook meals at home rather than going out to eat or ordering deliveries. When we cook meals at home, we know exactly what ingredients are going into the meals, and we can substitute simple carbs and processed foods with nutrient rich alternatives. There are a few foods in particular that you should make the extra effort to incorporate into your diet:
Dark Leafy Greens- Spinach, collard greens and kale are rich in iron and folic acid. Iron and folic acids have been shown to reduce fatigue and ward off symptoms of depression. Individuals who ate a diet rich in dark, leafy greens had less symptoms of cognitive decline than those who did not. An easy way to get your recommended leafy greens in is to substitute one meal a day with a salad with lots of vegetables.
Whole Grains- The brain’s primary source of energy is glucose. The glucose found in whole grains such as bulgar, oats, wild rice and barley are much better than those found in other, more processed products. Whole grains are full of complex carbs which release glucose slowly, providing a steady stream of fuel for the brain rather than the fast burning glucose found in sugar-filled white bread or rice.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids are often missing from diets- they can be found in foods such as wild cold water fish, seaweed, avocado, nuts and some chicken (if it was fed on flaxseed and walnuts). Our brain is made up of 60% fat, so it makes sense that we need to be eating (the right kind of) fats to maintain our brain health. Omega 3s affect the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin which boost learning and memory, as well as helps to maintain normal cognitive functioning. Diets that incorporate fatty acids have also been shown to reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia, depression and ADHD.
B-Vitamins are incredibly important to our mental health as well. Stress turns to our B-vitamins first and burns through them quickly which can lead to adrenal fatigue. B-vitamins are found in dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, legumes, eggs and dairy products, meat and whole grains.
What to Avoid:
Alcohol- For many of us, alcohol is a substance that we consume from time to time, however what you may not know if that alcohol actually turns the fatty part of our brain rancid. Alcohol has also been linked to depression, memory loss and suicide. Try to limit your consumption of alcohol and offset any drinking with a healthy diet full of nutrients and vitamins.
Trans Fats- A recent study from the University of California showed that trans fats may have a negative effect on anger management. Another study showed that there was a 48% higher chance of depression in individuals who consumed high levels of trans fats. Trans fats can be found in dairy products and meats, any oils that can turn to solids (butter, margarine, etc), baked goods and fast food.
Soda and Sugary Drinks- Fruit juices and soda spike your blood sugar which provides energy spikes to your brain, but they do not give you any nutrients and you eventually crash. Soda is usually packed full of caffeine as well, which can cause disturbances in your sleeping patterns, worsening your mental health symptoms. If you are craving a fruit juice, try juicing your own to avoid all of the added ingredients, or simply eat a piece of fruit and drink water. If it’s soda that you’re craving, reach for sparkling water- you’ll still get the satisfying fizz but without the sugar and empty calories.
Simple Carbohydrates- Simple carbs such as white bread, rice or candy cause blood sugar spikes and crashes which can lead to mood swings. Sugar has also been attributed to ADHD, bipolar disorder and psychosis. Put in the effort to replace simple carbs with more complex ones (purchase seedy bread instead of white bread, and wild rice instead of white rice).
Changing your diet and lifestyle is not something that happens overnight for most people, it takes time and commitment to make the positive changes and stick with them. Make it a goal and a priority in your life to improve your nutrition, and you will see the changes it makes on your mental health. For optimal overall wellness, a balance of proper nutrition, adequate sleep and consistent exercise make the biggest impact.
7 Unusual Signs of Iron Deficiency by Ashley Welch
The Skinny on Brain Fats by Susan Reynolds
How Can the Brain be Both 60% Fat and 80% Water by Angela S. Bryant
Vitamin B: Best Sources and Signs of Deficiency by Teresa Cheong
Alcohol and Mental Health- Drinkaware
Say "No" to Trans Fats- Mental Health Food
Foods to Avoid if You Have Anxiety or Depression - Web MD
The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health Promotion and Prevention- Dietitians of Canada
Simple Carbohydrates- Medline Plus
Do Carbs Make You Crazy by Emily Deans M.D.
Malabsorption Syndrome- Healthline
Dr. Diana Garcia
Dr. Diana Garcia has over 20 years of experience in the field of psychology. She has provided psychological and counseling services in Ontario, and the states of Pennsylvania, and Florida