The phrase “you are what you eat” is as cliche as they come. However, with mental health becoming a growing issue in our culture, there are an increasing number of studies examining the relationship between the foods we eat and how we feel.
According to WebMD, approximately 1 in 4 Americans will have some kind of mental illness each year. In America, 40 million adults age 18 and older suffer from anxiety disorders, while 16.1 million American adults suffer from major depressive disorders. If you’re struggling with similar mental health issues issues, one of the things you can try on your own is changing your diet.
Forget dieting in the New Year for weight loss. It’s time to eat for our sanity and to help boost our moods.
Here’s what science says about the link between nutrition and mental health:
The Mind-Gut Connection
According to research, there is a significant relationship between mental health and gut health. According to the Harvard Health blog, 95 percent of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract.
There are significant differences when comparing specific diets like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet to the Western way of eating. Most notably, the Western diet is rich in meat, processed foods, and sugar, which are all bad news for our overall health and maybe even our mental health. Researchers have found that diets rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats correlate with a lower risk of depression by 25 to 35 percent.
One thought is that these diets are heavier in fruits and vegetables and even some fermented foods that would be more laden with probiotics. Fermented foods help with keeping good gut bacteria and support the mind-gut connection.
Research surrounding this is still relatively new — but it’s worth noting. “The potential influence of food has been virtually ignored,” a team of researchers wrote in their 2016 study. Their study followed 12,400 people for about seven years monitoring what they ate. Researchers discovered that those who increased their intake of nutrient-dense whole foods such as fruits and vegetables rated themselves as having higher levels of happiness and general satisfaction in their life.
“Mental health is complex,” Dr. Jacka, the director of the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia and the president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research in an interview with the New York Times. “Eating a salad is not going to cure depression. But there’s a lot you can do to lift your mood and improve mental health, and it can be as simple as increasing your intake of plants and healthy foods.”
So if eating more natural nutrition can improve mental health, it may be worth a try. Here are the best tips on how to get started in the New Year:
Try The Mediterranean Diet
You may have heard it mentioned for its remarkable physical health properties, but the Mediterranean Diet is more than just a passing trend. This way of eating has been around for generations and is simply the traditional way to eat for people native to Mediterranean areas. Scientists started noticing that those from these regions had amazing health into old age.
But the health benefits of the natural nutrition found in the Mediterranean Diet far exceed simple weight loss and longevity. Studies are now showing it can have a positive effect on mental health, too.
Here’s what you’ll eat a lot of on the Mediterranean Diet:
- Whole grains
- Herbs and spices
- Olive oil
Here’s what you’ll eat in moderation on the Mediterranean Diet:
Are red meat and sweets banned? Not necessarily. But they are intended for rare occasions and not a daily occurrence.
Eating fish is one of the critical components of the Mediterranean Diet and why it is believed to have a significant impact on mental health. Fish contain Omega-3s. According to WebMD, “these healthy fatty acids improve thinking and memory and, possibly, mood.”
One recent study focused on 150 adults who suffered from depression. Those in the group who followed the Mediterranean diet and supplemented with fish oil for a period spanning three months had “greater reductions in symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety after three months compared to a control group.”
So this New Year, don’t stress about food too much. Kick back, relax and pretend you’re taking a vacation to Greece or Italy and embrace the Mediterranean Diet. Your mood will thank you for it.
Eat More Carbs (Yes, Really)
You might have to read that heading again to believe it. While eating more carbs goes against the hottest dieting fads (namely Keto), increased carbohydrate intake is linked to better mental health.
According to WebMd, carbohydrates have been linked to increased serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the predominant hormone responsible for stabilizing our moods, happiness, and overall well-being.
It also aids in your brain’s communication with the rest of your nervous system to help keep you feeling balanced and functioning. In fact, some experts believe that those annoying carb cravings you try to ignore may even be a signal that your body is low in serotonin.
How to embrace guilt-free carb consumption:
- Focus on complex carbs such as whole grains
- Limit sugary foods like cakes and cookies or white bread
- Eat more fruits, vegetables and legumes, which also contain healthy carbs and plenty of fiber.
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Add In Probiotics
Probiotics are the good kind of bacteria that your gut needs to have a healthy environment. When your gut is healthy and full of good bacteria, inflammation within the body decreases. Less inflammation equals better mood and overall improved cognition.
If the idea of probiotics makes you think of yucky fermented food or an old lady yogurt commercial, you’re not wrong. However, there are many ways to get the probiotics you need to fuel your healthy gut:
- aged cheeses, such as cheddar, gouda, or mozzarella
- uncultured, traditional buttermilk
- yogurt (both dairy and non-dairy)
- fresh, sour dill pickles
- water or brine-cured olives
Supplement When Needed
While natural nutrition or whole foods is the way to go when it comes to increasing your micronutrient (fancy word for vitamins) intake, it doesn’t hurt to consult your physician to see if you may need to take some over-the-counter supplements as well. Here are some of the main micronutrients you need to make sure you’re not deficient in. Keeping healthy levels of these can often improve mental health and have mood-boosting powers:
- Vitamin B: If you’re low in B12, you are more prone to increased brain inflammation and higher rates of depression. A folate deficiency is also linked to lower moods and poor mental health.
- Iron. Whether you’re borderline low on iron or full-on anemic, this vitamin deficiency has been linked to depression diagnoses.
- Omega-3s: We already talked about eating more fish to get these, but if seafood is not your preferred cuisine, taking fish oil can have similar benefits that improve overall thinking abilities, memory and mood.
- Zinc: Maintaining good zinc levels will help your body control its overall stress response. Deficiencies in this vitamin have been linked to depression.
- Vitamin D. Often linked to seasonal depression because you can get it from simply being in the sun; if your levels are too low, you can have increased fatigue and depression. Taking a supplement over the counter can help no matter what time of year it is.
A Professional Therapist Can Help
While you can control what you eat, changing your diet amid mental health struggles can be difficult. Having a therapist who understands the role of nutrition in mental health and who can support you through the process might be just the ticket to making sustainable changes to your diet in order to support your mental health.
Also, sometimes simple food changes aren’t enough. And that’s okay, too.
If you live in Pennsylvania and need mental health support, whether you’re looking to embrace natural nutrition or you are more interested in other therapies, our licensed professionals at Native are here to listen and help.