How many times have you heard the phrase: “You are what you eat?”
Probably enough times that you no longer pay it any mind, but there is actually something to that age-old saying. Research has started to show just how our diets are connected to our overall health and wellbeing. If you find yourself struggling, it may be time to take a look into what foods could be the cause of the negative conditions affecting you. It’s also a great chance to discover more foods that help with positive mental health.
Mental Health and Diet: What’s the Connection?
While you might think that your diet and mental health are two unrelated things, research tells us otherwise. Our gut health, more specifically, the bacteria inside of our guts, can really affect our mood. While discussing the gut-brain connection, those at Rider University explain, “Our gastrointestinal tract is lined with 100 million nerve cells and releases hormones that influence everything from when we are hungry to feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. In other words, our guts heavily impact the way our brains think, how we feel, and our general well-being.” Making the right diet choices on a regular basis can help decrease negative mental health conditions.
But what are the right choices?
Rider University suggests foods to incorporate into our diets that have the necessary nutrients to make our digestive tracts and brains happier.
Omega-3s: The bacteria in our guts really love Omega-3s but because our bodies don’t naturally produce it, it’s important to consume more fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines. If fish isn’t your thing you can also get Omega-3s from things such as walnuts and flaxseed.
Protein: Think of protein as the crime-fighter for your gut health. Because proteins contain nitrogen, they can help limit the number of bad bacteria in your gut’s microbiome. Additionally, the proteins that you get from beef, chicken, nuts, and even Brussel's sprouts can boost your mood as these produce serotonin, which helps ease feelings of depression.
Fiber: Another key nutrient that makes your gut excited is fiber. Fiber not only helps reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in your digestive tract but it’s also said to help with our overall mood. Foods that are high in fiber include fruits, veggies, and dark chocolate.
Improving your mental health through your diet is also not only about incorporating more good foods, but also limiting the foods that can negatively affect your mood. For example, increased use of alcohol and consuming a lot of processed foods, sugar, and trans fats can not only negatively affect your physical condition but your mental condition, too. It’s all about balancing the good and the bad.
Making a Positive Change
Transforming our diets doesn’t happen overnight — and it shouldn’t! Denying yourself foods that you enjoy in an effort to boost your mood could have the opposite effect.
How can we focus on improving our mental health if we’re constantly berating ourselves for eating a doughnut or two? Moreover, if one day all you can think about are the chips in your pantry then it’s not worth denying yourself, as that can form a bad relationship with food.
If you’re unsure where to start with improving your diet, it may be helpful to create a list for a week or two of all the foods you’re eating. Each day, under each meal, include a brief summary of how you felt (both physically and mentally) in the few hours afterward. There could be some hidden culprits among your diet you’re not considering or haven’t noticed before.
For example, there are many people who suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It’s a chronic gastrointestinal condition that results in acid reflux or heartburn and can sometimes impact a person’s quality of life if symptoms are hard to manage. It’s recommended that people who deal with frequent GERD symptoms limit their intake of certain foods such as dairy, alcohol, caffeine, carbonated beverages, and spicy foods.
After you’ve listed your meals and your response to them for a bit, you can take a better look at how your current diet is affecting you. Is dairy making you feel bloated or irritating your stomach? After that burger and fries did you feel melancholy or glum? Did the steak dinner with mushrooms and salad have you feeling rejuvenated and happy? What about the fresh strawberries you picked up from the farmer’s market? While tracking your food and reactions may not be the most exciting way to spend your free time, it can give you a clearer idea of how your body and mind respond to certain foods, which can help you start making the right changes.
At the end of the day, the goal is to incorporate more foods and healthier habits that can aid your mental health, while also being more mindful and limiting certain foods. It’s also important to tailor your diet to your needs. Our diets shouldn’t be formed based on a popular fad or one-size-fits-all diet, it’s about your body and mind and learning how you respond to certain foods. Never self-diagnose and always consult with a trusted medical professional for resources if you find yourself relying too heavily on a harmful diet in an effort to be “healthy.”
By Frankie Wallace
Frankie Wallace is a freelance writer from the Pacific Northwest of the United States. She writes about a variety of topics, but manages to spend her free time tending to her garden and cuddling with her cat, Casper.
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