How Food Affects Your Mood: Food for Good Mental Health

We all know how healthy eating habits positively affect our physical health. It’s been studied and documented for years that nutrition plays a central role in keeping our bodies fit and healthy. But have you ever stopped to consider how your food choices impact your mental well-being?

It might not be something you are cognizant of but when you are eating a healthy well-balanced diet, you are in a better place mentally, emotionally, and of course, physically. 

Think of food as brain fuel

Your brain is working 24/7, 365—even when you’re sleeping it’s plugging away doing the unseen work of keeping you alive. Your heartbeat, thoughts, breaths, movements, and everything else in between are being handled by your brain.

So it stands to reason that you need to fuel that brain to help it keep up with that all-important work of keeping you alive. Your brain is fueled by food and which foods you choose to use make a difference in your brain’s performance.

When you eat a balanced diet with foods containing vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, you are doing your part to nourish and protect your brain. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true—when you are eating foods with little to no nutritional value, you can damage your brain.

Processed and refined foods can do a real number on your brain. Multiple studies have looked at this link and found an overall negative correlation between high sugar and processed food diets and brain function.

One study found that cognition and memory function were impacted when participants had too much fat and sugar in their diets. Another study looked specifically at the Malaysian population and found the same to be true—the more sugar in their diets, the more difficulties they had with cognitive functioning.

Eating a balanced diet high in brain-rich foods—fish, seafood, beans, legumes, leafy greens, nuts, and yogurt—has been shown to be an effective way to promote mental health and can be a central piece of the puzzle when it comes to recovering from mental illness.

When you think about it, of course, the food you use to fuel your body will affect your mental wellbeing. Your body is a holistic unit—what you put into your stomach will of course have an effect on your brain and your brain, in turn, has an impact on your mental health. 

The field of nutritional psychiatry—the practice of using food as alternative treatments for mental health issues and disorders—continues to find more correlations between what you eat, how you feel, and how you behave.

How food influences your mood

Did you know that serotonin—a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, mood, appetite, and inhibits pain—is produced in your gastrointestinal tract? About 95% of your body’s serotonin comes from your gastrointestinal tract which is lined with a hundred million nerve cells. When you think about this, it becomes much clearer how foods can impact your mood and emotions.

This connection between your gut health and your mood means that getting the right foods as well as the right “good” bacteria into your stomach is essential for good mental health.

Eating a healthy, balanced diet full of unprocessed foods also ensures that we are getting the right nutrients for brain growth. A diet that is rich in omega-3s and zinc boosts the brain protein that helps build connections between brain cells. Alternatively, a diet full of refined sugars and saturated fats have a negative impact on the same brain proteins.

Simply put, a whole-food diet that is high in vegetables, seafood, whole grains, nuts, lean meats, and legumes that actively avoids processed foods is powerful protection against poor mental health.

So how do you go about creating this brain-healthy diet?

This is your brain on clean eating

To get your gut and brain health working in tandem to improve your mental health, all you need to do is start leaning into a cleaner, less processed diet. While this might be easier said than done in our fast-paced world, the benefits of eating clean can’t be ignored.

Studies comparing more traditional, clean diets—like the Mediterranean diet—to what is considered a typical “Western” diet have shown that the risk of depression drops by 25% to 35% when eating a traditional diet.

Why? Because traditional diets like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet lack a substantial amount of processed and refined foods. Instead, they are full of vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish, seafood, and healthy fats like olive oil. They also contain fermented foods, which are natural probiotics that help maintain good gut health.

Making large-scale dietary changes can be difficult. But by slowly integrating a cleaner diet into your life, you can start to see the benefits of eating a more balanced diet.

So what can you do?

  • Eat vegetables at every meal and add at least one serving of leafy greens to your plate a day.
  • Add more fish and seafood, which are packed with brain-building omega-3s to your diet.
  • Up your iron by getting more beans and legumes into your diet.
  • Zinc is another amazing brain-building mineral. Try adding oysters to your diet—one single oyster has 500% of your daily zinc requirement.
  • Embrace fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut—they will help keep your gut health balanced.
  • End it on a sweet note with a bit of dark chocolate and blueberries, both full of antioxidants!

Remember, even small changes can have a positive impact on your overall mental and physical wellbeing.

 

Please always check with a medical professional to ensure these strategies are right for you.

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