“You are what you eat,” true or false? While you aren’t going to turn into a French fry if that is all you eat, what you eat does affect you, and can have a substantial impact on mental health. With so many vowing to eat healthier, this time of year, this is the perfect opportunity to examine how to eat to improve your mental health.
How does what we eat affect mental health? It turns out, the Snickers commercials are true; “You aren’t you when you’re hungry,” as mood can be affected by our blood glucose levels. Many processed foods, which are often high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, cause dramatic spikes and drops in blood sugar making you feel fatigued, irritable, and even depressed. In fact, there is evidence that demonstrates those struggling with depression notice an improvement in their mood when they decrease their sugar intake. Another cause of the blood glucose roller coaster, skipping meals and then overeating when you do eat. Aim to eat 3 meals a day with 2 snacks in between your meals. Incorporating protein at every meal will help you stay fuller longer, which will also help you to not overeat at your next meal. Eat a combination of proteins, fats and carbohydrates to further prevent the blood glucose roller coaster. What might that look like? For breakfast, try whole grain toast with smashed avocado and eggs.
Another way our diet affects mental health is through our intake of amino acids, as these help produce the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which have a direct impact on our mood and mental health. B vitamins, magnesium, and omega 3- fatty acids, help produce these key neurotransmitters. Animal protein provides you with significant amounts of B vitamins. Vegetarian options for B vitamins include whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts, and dark leafy vegetables. Good sources of magnesium include nuts, dark chocolate and spinach, while fish, nuts and seeds can provide you with sufficient amounts of omega fatty acids. Vitamin D deficiencies have also been linked to mental health difficulties, particularly depression. 15 minutes of sunlight and dairy products can provide you with the recommended amounts of vitamin D.
It is important to note there is not one diet that is right for everyone; we all have to find what works for us, and one way to figure out what foods and diet are going to work best for you is by keeping a food journal. Keep track of the foods and drinks you are consuming, what time you are consuming them, and record how you feel after consumption. Do you feel energized? Do you feel sluggish? Do you feel energized initially, but then your energy plummets? How is your mood? Are you using food as a comfort? Keep track of any and all types of reactions you have to foods and beverages, including stomach gurgles and digestive responses.
We’ve focused a lot on what we eat, but it is also important to recognize how beverages can also impact our mood and mental health. Of all the beverages we can consume, water is the most important. Our brains need water to function at its best. When we are dehydrated, cell function in the brain is less efficient leading to difficulties in maintaining attention, and short-term memory function. Additionally, dehydration, even at mild levels, can lead to changes in mood, fatigue and anxiety. It is recommended that we drink around eight 8-ounce glasses a day, which works out to approximately a 2-liter. Other popular beverages such as tea, coffee, and soda often include caffeine, which can also have an impact on our mental health. Caffeine is a stimulant, leading to an increase in energy and focus, and even a boost in mood. However, too much caffeine can cause some to feel jittery and anxious. Too much caffeine can also have a negative impact on sleep which plays a major role in mental health and our overall wellbeing. Limit caffeine intake at least 6 hours before bed.
We are more of what we eat than we realize. We’ve heard a thousand times before, moderation is key, and what this really means is we need to examine if we are eating healthy, balanced meals that include real (not processed) foods. Try to eat foods from all the colors of the rainbow. It may be difficult to do this year-round, depending on where you live, but frozen fruits and vegetables can help you achieve pops of color in your meals. Bottom line, try to stay away from processed foods, and eat a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy products. Eat and drink well for your body and your mind ☺.