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Cultivating Mental Health: How to Improve Your Mental Health Through Nutrition

Our blog series “Cultivating Mental Health” will explore essential elements in nurturing our mental health through food, sleep, exercise, and social relationships. Being mindful of these elements can help you to plant positive self-care habits into your daily routine that will not only improve your mental and physical health, but also propagate feelings of well-being and happiness.

Let’s start with a basic, but essential element – NUTRITION.

Like a seedling, we require food and water to sustain life. However, with proper nutrition, we can not only survive, but grow and thrive - emotionally, mentally and physically.

Why Nutrition Is Important to Your Mental Health

Diet culture is everywhere! As a society, we have been conditioned to associate the importance of our diet primarily to our physical appearance and health. Society and the media tell us, over and over, every single day, how we should look and what we need to swallow to look amazing, lose weight and feel great... and it works! We spend a mind-blowing $30 billion (about $92 per person in the US) annually on diet products!

… That’s a whole other patch of weeds to pluck, though! Let’s stay on point.

While it is true that poor eating habits can reflect in our physical appearance, the negative effects on the brain are often overlooked. Yet, your brain is the core of who you are – controlling your thoughts, personality, mood, cognizance, how you communicate and interact with the world – not to mention, every single movement and function of your body. That seems far more important than any pant size, doesn’t it!?

For many years, the correlation between nutrition and mental health was not entirely known. However, in recent years, researchers have found that nutrition has a significant effect on the brain, which in turn affects mood, mental health and physical health.

How Unhealthy Foods Affect Your Mental Health

Our brain functions best when we eat only quality, nutrient-rich foods with lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. These foods nourish the brain and protect it from oxidative stress, which is the "waste" (free radicals) produced when the body uses oxygen. This waste can damage cells.

Consuming a typical American diet, high in processed foods and/or refined sugars, is harmful to the brain. These foods inhibit the body’s ability to regulate insulin, while promoting inflammation and free radicals. Multiple studies have reported a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function, affecting memory and cognition, and worsening symptoms of mood disorders.

You see, the brain uses glucose (sugar) to fuel cellular activity, but when too much glucose is present, the brain is unable to rid itself of the excess. Research shows that elevated levels of glucose cause a fluctuation in serotonin levels, which is a neurotransmitter needed for mood regulation. This chemical imbalance can increase the risk of developing mood disorders, such as depression. If a mood disorder is already present, symptoms can become much worse.

Sugar is not the only food that poses a threat to our mental health. Several studies have confirmed that there is a definitive link between a high-fat diet and the likelihood of developing depression. While, high-fat diets are commonly associated with negative physical effects, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease, growing research correlates diets high in saturated fat to inflammation and an increase of palmitic acid in the hypothalamus region of the brain. Prominent levels of palmitic acid in the brain are known to alter states of mood, given its ability to manipulate the amount of dopamine (the "happy" chemical) released by the brain. What's more, regular and prolonged consumption of saturated and trans fats are also linked to memory and other cognitive issues. These fats are prevalent in the convenient processed and fast foods that have become a staple in the American diet. It is no wonder that the US has the 2nd highest depression rate in the world!

Scientific connections are also being made between poor nutrition and other mental health concerns, such as anxiety, ADHD, schizophrenia, dementia and Alzheimer's.

Okay, so now we have a basic understanding that some foods can have a lasting effect on our mood and mental health, because of the impact they have on our brain. We also know that to nurture our mental health, we need to make a conscious effort to provide our mind and body with healthy, nutrient-rich foods and avoid processed foods, refined sugars, as well as saturated and trans fats. So, what should we eat?

How to Improve Your Mental Health Through Nutrition

Our brain requires a mix of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins & minerals, and water to remain healthy. Here are some excellent sources of each.

What foods to eat:
  • Vitamins & Minerals - (Preferably organic) fruits, berries, and vegetables, especially dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli
  • Complex carbohydrates - brown rice, starchy vegetables, quinoa, millet, beets and sweet potatoes
  • Lean proteins - chicken, meat, fish, eggs, soybeans, nuts and seeds.
  • Fatty acids - fish, meat, eggs, nuts and flaxseeds
  • Amino acids - quinoa, mushrooms, fish, turkey, eggs, cottage cheese, legumes and beans
  • Healthy fats - salmon, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil
  • Water - 64+ ounces per day, depending on body weight, activity and environmental conditions
What foods to avoid or limit:
  • Refined sugars, processed foods, trans and saturated fats – candy, fast food, soda pop and other sugary beverages, packaged snacks; chips, crackers and baked goods

Changing your diet can be hard, to say the least. Here are some tips to help build healthy eating habits and stay on track.

Try these healthy eating tips:
  • Start slowly, by cutting out unhealthy snacks. Replace packaged, processed snacks with a piece of fruit, nuts or cut up vegetables.
  • Drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated and feeling full. Replace sweetened beverages with water or other unsweetened drinks.
  • Meal plan and prep. We don’t always make the best choices when we are hungry and short on time, so plan your meals in advance, create a healthy shopping list and stick to it, then prep what you can to save time later.
  • Keep a food journal to hold yourself accountable and track your progress. Food journals can also be helpful in identifying food sensitivities and negative effects of specific foods on your energy level and mood.
  • Be mindful of mealtime. Measure your portions. Sit down to eat with purpose, removing distractions, such as the TV and cellphone. Chew your food and savor the flavors.

Nurturing your mental health requires commitment. However, if you can provide your body and mind with the nutrients needed to work properly, you’ve planted the seed for positive mental health!


Related Articles

Cultivating Mental Health: Blog Series Introduction

Cultivating Mental Health: The Importance of Sleep to Your Mental Health

Cultivating Mental Health: The Benefits of Exercise to Your Mental Health

Cultivating Mental Health: The Importance of Social Relationships

Cultivating Mental Health: Protecting Your Mental Health on Social Media

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