From an early age, we are taught that eating well helps us look and feel better physically. What we are not always told is that good nutrition also significantly affects our mental health. Eating a healthy, balanced diet can help us think clearly and feel more alert. It can also improve concentration and attention span.
Conversely, an inadequate diet can lead to fatigue, impaired decision-making and can slow reaction time. In fact, a poor diet can actually make stress and depression worse, or even lead to it.
One of the biggest damage to health is society’s dependence on processed foods. These foods are high in flour and sugar and make the brain crave them more than nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables.
Most of the processed foods we eat are highly addictive and stimulate our brain’s dopamine centers, which are associated with pleasure and reward. To stop craving unhealthy foods, you need to stop eating those foods. In fact, you start to change the physiology of the brain when you remove added sugars and refined carbohydrates from your diet.
The science behind food and mood
The connection between food and emotions stems from the close relationship between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract, often referred to as the “second brain”.
Here’s how it works: Your digestive tract is home to billions of bacteria that influence the production of neurotransmitters, chemicals that constantly carry messages from the gut to the brain. (Dopamine and serotonin are two common examples.)
Eating healthy foods promotes the growth of “good” bacteria, which in turn positively affect the production of neurotransmitters. A regular diet of junk food, on the other hand, can cause inflammation that hampers production. When neurotransmitter production is in good condition, your brain receives these positive messages loud and clear, and your emotions reflect them. But when production goes bad, so can your mood.
Sugar, in particular, is believed to be a major cause of inflammation and is believed to feed “bad” bacteria in the digestive tract. Ironically, it can also cause a temporary spike in “feel good” neurotransmitters, like dopamine. It’s not good for you either, says Rachel Brown, co-founder of The Wellness Project, a consulting firm that works with businesses to promote good employee health. The result is a sugar rush which is followed shortly thereafter by a crash “which is terrible for your mood,” she says.
When you stick to a healthy diet, you set yourself up for fewer mood swings, happier overall vision, and better ability to focus, says Dr Cora. Studies have even shown that a healthy diet can help relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. Unhealthy diets have been linked to an increased risk of dementia or stroke.
A healthy gut
Researchers continue to prove the old adage that you are what you eat, most recently by exploring the close connection between our gut and our brain. Our gut and brain are physically connected by the vagus nerve, and the two can send messages to each other. While the gut can influence the emotional behavior of the brain, the brain can also change the type of bacteria that lives in the gut.
According to the American Psychological Association, gut bacteria produce a variety of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate physiological and mental processes, including mood. It is believed that 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin, a mood stabilizer, is produced by gut bacteria. Stress is believed to suppress beneficial gut bacteria.
Paying attention to how you feel when eating and what you eat is one of the first steps in ensuring you have well-balanced meals and snacks. Since many of us don’t pay attention to our eating habits, nutritionists recommend keeping a food journal. Documenting what you eat, where and when you eat is a great way to better understand your habits.
If you notice that you are eating too much when you are stressed, it can be helpful to stop what you are doing when the urge to eat arises and write down your feelings. By doing this, you might find out what is really bothering you. If you are not eating enough, it may help to plan five or six small meals instead of three large ones.
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Find out more about mindful and emotional eating
Sometimes stress and depression are serious and cannot be managed on their own. For some, eating disorders develop. If you have trouble controlling your eating habits, whether you eat too much or not enough, your health may be at risk. If so, you should consult a professional. Asking for help is never a sign of weakness or failure, especially in situations that are too difficult for you to handle on your own.
Your brain and nervous system depend on nutrition to build new proteins, cells, and tissues. To function effectively, your body needs a variety of carbohydrates, proteins, and minerals. To get all the nutrients that improve mental functioning, nutritionists suggest eating meals and snacks that include a variety of foods, instead of eating the same meals every day.
Here are the top three foods to include in a healthy diet for mental health:
- Complex carbohydrates – such as brown rice and starchy vegetables can give you energy. Quinoa, millet, beets, and sweet potatoes have more nutritional value and will keep you satisfied longer than the simple carbohydrates in sugar and candy.
- Lean protein – also provides energy that helps your body think and respond quickly. Good sources of protein include chicken, meat, fish, eggs, soybeans, nuts, and seeds.
- Fatty acids are essential for the proper functioning of your brain and nervous system. You can find them in fish, meat, eggs, nuts, and flax seeds.
Tips for healthy eating
- Stay away from processed snacks, like potato chips, which can affect your ability to concentrate. Forget sugar-filled snacks like candy and soda that spike energy levels.
- Eat lots of healthy fats, like olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado. This will support your brain function.
- When you’re hungry, have a healthy snack, like fruit, nuts, hard-boiled eggs, baked sweet potatoes, or edamame. This will give you more energy than packaged products.
- Develop a healthy shopping list and stick to it.
- Don’t shop when you are hungry as you will be more prone to unhealthy impulse purchases.
- Think about where and when you eat. Don’t eat in front of the TV as it can distract you and cause you to overeat. Instead, find a place to sit back, relax, and really notice what you are eating. Chew slowly. Savor the flavor and texture.