Four ways nutrition impacts your mental health (and eight foods to eat!)
We know we need to eat well to help our bodies be healthy. Physical wellness ands fitness goals–be it weight loss, muscle gain, or endurance–are supported by the foods we eat. Some foods can also make you feel awful. Bloating, an upset stomach, acid reflux, or an allergic reaction can occur when we eat something that isn’t good for us, or doesn’t agree with our own unique sensitivities.
If the food we put in our bodies can so greatly affect our physical health, can it also impact our mind?
A study reported in The Lancet seems to think so: “[T]he emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a crucial factor in … mental disorders suggests that diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology. Evidence is steadily growing for the relation between dietary quality and mental health."
In 2020 alone, 22% of Canadians reported that they had been diagnosed with depression, while 20% had an anxiety disorder, according to Mental Health Research Canada. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 31% of U.S. adults struggled with anxiety or depressive symptoms in 2020, while adults in the U.K. reported “a clinically significant level of psychological distress” – ranging from 20.8% to 29.5% – at different points in 2020, according to government reports. Thankfully, scientists and researchers are taking note.
The study of how food impacts mood has been dubbed “nutritional psychiatry,” and it’s still in its infancy. Yet studies are showing that food can bolster our emotional and mental wellbeing.
Some foods can boost your mood, others can promote calmness or help you focus, while others give you energy. But, perhaps most exciting is the research linking some foods to lower levels of depression and anxiety.
Sugar and Carbs
The British Medical Journal reports that diets with a high glycemic index (high amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugars) may “have a detrimental effect on psychological well-being,” and research shows “an association between progressively higher dietary glycemic index and the incidence of depressive symptoms.”
Harvard Health also states that diets “high in refined sugars are harmful to the brain.” How does it work? Well, refined sugars make it harder for your body to regulate insulin levels, causing sugar crashes and decreased mood, and even depressive symptoms. Refined sugars and carbohydrates also “promote inflammation and oxidative stress” (leaving cells susceptible to damage), which doesn’t only impact us physically, but takes a toll on brain health as well.
Vitamins and Minerals
Ensuring we eat nutrient-dense foods is a given, right? We know that eating well is one of our best defences against things like heart disease or cancer. But certain vitamin deficiencies, such as B12, Vitamin D, iron, folate and zinc have been linked to depression and other mood disorders. Adding foods like eggs, beef, salmon, shellfish, nuts and seeds, legumes, broccoli, milk, and vitamin-fortified cereals will add just about all of these important vitamins to your diet. Iron, of course, is found in meat, particularly red meat, but there are some good plant-based sources including spinach, sweet potatoes, dried apricots, prunes, beans, oatmeal, and bran cereal.
Omega-3 fatty acids are imperative for brain health, and guess what? They also play a role in mental wellness. Oily fish like salmon and tuna, nuts (especially walnuts), flaxseeds and chia seeds, dark leafy greens, canola oil, firm tofu, brussel sprouts, and navy beans have some of the highest levels of Omega-3s.
Probiotics and Gut Health
Even the bacteria that live in your gut can affect your brain and emotional health. Have you heard of serotonin? That handy little neurotransmitter that does things like aid sleep, promote a regular appetite, increase mood and even inhibit pain. Well guess what? Ninety-five percent of serotonin is made in the gut.
More and more studies have found a link between gut health and lower incidence of stress, anxiety and depression. According to the British Medical Journal, "major depressive disorder in humans is associated with alterations of the gut microbiome.”
Chronic inflammation—part of the body’s defence mechanism—is linked to things like arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes. But it can play a role in our mental health as well, and is connected to a higher incidence of depressive symptoms.
How do we combat inflammation? Eating a diet high in fresh produce, nuts, oily fish and unprocessed grains—what many refer to as the Mediterranean diet—is linked to lower levels of inflammation, as well as lower risk of depression, sometimes by as much as 25-35%.
Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and sugar (which provide temporary feel-good effects, but leave us feeling worse afterwards), as well as saturated fats (which prevent our brains from converting food into the nutrients it needs) can help reduce inflammation. Adding fermented foods, often found in traditional Japanese diets, can also have positive effects.
You Are What You Eat
The U.S.-based Amen Clinic, which conducts brain scans to investigate and promote brain health, lists eight foods to eat when focusing on diet and mental health:
- Berries (antioxidants protect cells from free radicals, aid in cell renewal, and decrease inflammation)
- Lean protein (amino acids are needed for the production of serotonin and dopamine, which enhance mood)
- Salmon (omega 3s combat inflammation and affect cell function; may help improve depression and anxiety)
- Kimchi (fermented foods = probiotics, which support gut health)
- Avocados (oleic acid, an omega-9 fatty acid, boosts brain health)
- Dark leafy greens (fight inflammation)
- Herbs and spices, especially saffron (an antioxidant to improve mood and lessen depressive symptoms)
Increasing your intake of foods like beans, nuts, turmeric and ginger, apples and plums, and veggies like artichokes, beets and broccoli also provide lots of antioxidants and an array of vitamins and minerals. You can get even more tips on eating well in our blogs on gut health and clean eating.
So what’s the takeaway? Eating for physical wellness goes hand-in-hand with eating well for mental health. Getting plenty of rest, being active, getting outside and even measuring and tracking your body’s unique health metrics with our Dara Smart Body BMI Scale all play a role in emotional and physical health, and they also help us to better understand our bodies. Focusing on fresh and colourful fruits and veggies, lean protein, probiotics, and plenty of water, while limiting refined sugars and carbohydrates, caffeine and alcohol, not only helps keep your body healthy, but your mind, too.