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Dietary Tips for Mental Health

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

Hanger is real! Learn about the relationship between diet and mental health below.



Nutritional psychiatry is an emerging area of research looking at the role of nutrition in the development and treatment of mental health problems.


The two main questions that researchers ask about nutrition and mental health are:

"Does diet help prevent mental health conditions?" & "Are nutrition interventions helpful in the treatment of mental health symptoms?”

Why Does Food Affect Our Mood?


There are several theories on how diet may influence mood or the risk of conditions such as depression and anxiety. Some scientists believe that the inflammatory effects of certain dietary patterns might explain the relationship between diet and mental health. Several mental health conditions appear to have links with increased levels of inflammation. Diets associated with benefits for mental health tend to be high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthful fats — all of which are foods with anti-inflammatory properties.


Another possible explanation is that diet may affect the bacteria in the gut, which people often refer to as the gut microbiome. Ongoing research has found a strong link between gut health and brain function. For example, healthy bacteria in the gut produce approximately 90% of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which affects mood. Diets plays a major role in the health and diversity of the gut microbiome. Many people refer to the gut as "the second brain", because it plays such an important role in the production of neurotransmitters (happy chemicals in the brain).


Finally, there is the possibility that diet plays a more indirect role in mental health. It may be that individuals with healthy diets are more likely to engage in other behaviors that are linked with a reduced risk of mental health conditions. For example, regular exercise, practicing good sleep habits, and limiting or avoiding drug/alcohol use. I believe that each of these explanations offers some truth and are different pieces of the same puzzle.


The SAD Diet Makes Us Sad


The Standard American Diet (SAD) makes us sad! This diet consists of overly processed foods containing refined sugars and highly refined rice, pastas, and flours used in breads and bakery goods. These processed products are loaded with chemicals and synthetic preservatives, hormones, antibiotics, and food colorings that are known to alter our mood. The SAD leads to chronic inflammatory states and contributes to neurotransmitter imbalances. Much of it is “fake food” with dozens of chemical ingredients created in the laboratory and not in nature. These products are designed to survive on the shelf for months at a time—to reduce costs to the manufacturers. The SAD diet makes us SAD because it does not provide the nutrients our brain and body need to function well. Reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates such as sugar is critical to balancing mood. The good news is there are so many great alternatives these days for unhealthy, over-processed food products.


Depression


Numerous studies have shown that a healthy diet with high intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, fish, low fat dairy, and antioxidants, as well as low intakes of animal foods, is associated with a reduced risk of depression. The SMILES Trial was one of the first experiments to examine the role of diet in the treatment of depression. Over 12 weeks, 67 people with moderate or severe depression received either dietary counseling or social support in addition to their current treatment. The dietary intervention was similar to a Mediterranean diet, it emphasized vegetables, fruits, whole grains, oily fish, extra virgin olive oil, legumes, and raw nuts. It also allowed for moderate amounts of red meat and dairy. At the end of the study, those in the diet group had significantly greater improvements in depression symptoms. These improvements remained significant even when the scientists accounted for other factors like body mass index (BMI), physical activity, and smoking.


What about Supplements?


In addition to dietary patterns, scientists are interested in the potential effects that individual nutrients in the form of dietary supplements might have on mental health. Links have been found between low levels of certain nutrients — such as folate, magnesium, iron, zinc, and vitamins B6, B12, and D — and worsening mood, feelings of anxiety, and risk of depression. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that play a key role in brain development and cell signaling. This is likely because they reduce levels of inflammation. Inflammation can be linked to the development of every physical and mental dis-ease you can think of. While more research is still needed, several reviews of studies found omega-3 supplements to be an effective addition in the treatment of anxiety and depression in adults. Never start taking a new supplement without consulting with your doctor first, as many of them can have interactions with other supplements or medications you are taking.


Eat the RAINBOW


It is easy to make sure you get a range of nutrients from foods if you select foods from the whole color spectrum. Different colors within foods tend to be associated with different vitamins and nutrients. The yellows and oranges of sweet potatoes and carrots provide beta carotene, which converts to vitamin A to protect the immune system. The reds and purples of berries, figs, and grapes offer antioxidants called anthocyanins, which can reduce brain inflammation. Red peppers and tomatoes have vitamin C, and greens provide chlorophyll, the “blood of plants.” Both raw and lightly cooked dark greens are essential to health. Most people do well with a combination of raw and cooked foods. Cooked foods are easier to digest, so begin slowly with adding raw foods if you have not been eating them.


The Complexity of Mental Health


It is important to keep in mind that many factors can influence both eating habits and mental health. Other factors that can contribute to mental health conditions include biological factors, such as genetics, life experiences and family history. Most of us learn our eating habits from our families growing up, and may not have been taught how to eat healthy or why that is important. Socioeconomic status can also affect mental health outcomes and access to different types of food. Mental health can also affect eating habits. It is not uncommon to eat junk food when feeling angry or upset, or if under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Also, many psychiatric medications can increase or decrease appetite and cravings. In both of these situations, struggling with mental health can make sticking to a healthful diet more difficult. That is why it is so important to seek support and to find what works for you individually!


Words of Affirmation


Sometimes I get feedback such as eating like “this takes too much time, it’s not realistic”, or “I can’t eat like this because it’s too expensive”. I think these are common excuses we may tell ourselves. I recognize that we all have different time and financial constraints. However, I have found that cooking and eating healthy is a lot more cost-effective than eating out, or purchasing a lot of meat, dairy or excessive snack products. Everything that we purchase and spend our time on is an investment. In my opinion, there is no better investment of our time and energy than our health. Prevention is the best medicine, and food is one of the most powerful medicines that we all have access to. I personally set aside time each week to meal prep when I know that I have a busy week or may not have the energy later. It can be really fun to put on music or a podcast and make a meal for myself and/or someone I love. It is also a great opportunity to practice mindfulness, specifically “mindful cooking" and "mindful eating”. If you want to eat healthier, I recommend making small micro-adjustments over time as you build new habits. That makes the changes sustainable, and our taste buds actually start to change when we change our diet, which affects our cravings.


Eating well is a form of self-love and respect. Honor yourself. You deserve it!






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