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How to Eat for Your Mental Health

When you’re feeling stressed and having a bad day, what kind of food do you crave? It’s probably warm pasta, cookies, chocolate, or another favorite comfort food. But, unfortunately, indulging in these processed foods or foods high in sugar will likely only lead to more mental anguish.

In fact, every food you eat either harms or improves your mood, affecting everything from cognitive ability to susceptibility to depression, fatigue, and anxiety. But luckily, adjusting your eating patterns to support your mental well-being is easier than you think. In this blog, we’ll explain just how you can eat for your mental health.

How to eat to support your mental health:

The key to eating to boost your mental health is to consume foods that will support healthy brain function. The number one way to do that is by avoiding foods that will cause inflammation throughout the body, including the brain.

Heightened levels of inflammation in the body and brain will impact the way you feel, think, and operate throughout the day. This is especially true if the inflammation has been long-lasting or chronic.

One way to decrease inflammation throughout the body is to avoid foods that are highly processed or have added refined grains, chemicals, refined oils, and sugars. You can also consume foods that support an anti-inflamatory response, such as:

  • Legumes

  • Herbs

  • Spices

  • Vegetables

  • Fresh fruits

  • Whole grains

  • Nuts

Beyond sticking to an anti-inflammatory diet, we’ve listed some other ways to boost your mental health one fork full at a time.

Support your microbiome:

Keeping your gut and microbiome healthy is one of the best ways to support your mental health. This is because the gut contains two thin layers of over 100 million nerve cells that line your gastrointestinal tract, all the way from your esophagus to your rectum- this is why the gut is also known as the enteric nervous system (ENS). While the ENS doesn’t function like the central nervous system, in terms of thoughts, the two systems are constantly in communication with each other. Emotional shifts may be triggered by issues within the ENS like irritable bowel syndrome or gut inflammation.

The gut also contains around 400 times more serotonin than the brain. This serotonin and dozens of other neurotransmitters are all produced in the ENS. GI disturbances can cause production problems in the gut, which will then affect the availability of these neurotransmitters in the brain and can suppress the activity of the frontal cortex.

When the brain is lacking vital neurotransmitters produced in the gut, mood disorders like anxiety can result. Proper digestive function allows our brains access to chemical signals that help us feel optimistic, motivated, and at ease. Some steps you can take to promote gut health (and subsequently mental health) are:

  • Eat more whole nuts, vegetables, grains, beans, and fresh fruits.

  • Limit your sugar and fat intake

  • Consume more fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, and kombucha

  • Eat more foods with polyphenols, like dark chocolate

  • Consume spices that rid the gut of harmful bacteria like garlic, turmeric, and ginger

  • Limit your artificial sweetener intake

Consume more bitter greens:

Bitter greens are dark, leafy vegetables that are packed with vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients. Bitter greens include:

  • Arugula

  • Kale

  • Endive

  • Broccoli Rabe

  • Dandelion Greens

  • Frisee

  • Mustard Greens

  • Rapini

  • Turnip Greens

  • Watercress

  • Okra

  • Collard Greens

Bitter greens are some of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat. Vegetables like kale and arugula are packed with nutrients like Vitamins A, C, and K, plus potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Specifically, only one serving of kale has over 100% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin A and over 40% of the vitamin C RDI.

Surprisingly, several studies have suggested bitter greens can help ease symptoms of anxiety. Specifically, nutrients like Vitamins A, C, and E and other antioxidants have been proven to lower oxidative stress in the brain, easing anxiety symptoms. Further, magnesium, which is found in spinach and other bitter greens, has been linked to stress reduction and the lessening of anxiety symptoms.

Bitter greens are also rich in antioxidants. Romaine lettuce and spinach are great sources of antioxidants. These antioxidants protect our cells from free radical damage and can help prevent chronic disease and cognitive decline. Antioxidants can also help to alleviate inflammation throughout the body, furthering the mental health benefits of bitter greens.

Eat more healthy brain fats:

Did you know that 60% of your brain is made up of fat? This means that to promote healthy brain function, you’ve got to consume a lot of fats. But, not just any fats, stick to healthy anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats that are present in foods like:

  • Chia seeds

  • Salmon

  • Sardines

  • Anchovies

  • Walnuts

  • Pasture-raised eggs

  • Flax seeds

Unfortunately, the type of fat more commonly consumed in the US contains high amounts of pro-inflammatory omega-6s. These include oils chemically extracted from grains, seeds, or legumes like corn, peanut, canola, and soybean oils. While there is some need for omega-6 fats in your diet, too much of them will increase neuroinflammation, negatively impact brain cells, and reduce the body’s ability to utilize serotonin and other feel-good hormones.

If you live in America, it’s likely that you're eating too many omega-6 fats, so prioritizing omega-3 fats in your diet will give you the brain boost you’ve been looking for and decrease inflammation throughout the body. Some easy ways to increase omega-3 fats in your diet are:

  • Swap out seed oils high in omega-6 fats in favor of extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and unrefined coconut oil.

  • Include more seafood high in omega-3 fats in your diet, including salmon, herring, oysters, sardines, and anchovies.

  • Try topping your daily salad with some chia seeds, flaxseed, and walnuts.

Reduce processed and fast food in your diet:

Omega-6 fats and inflammatory seed oils aren’t the only ways you can increase inflammation in your brain. The refined flour, sugar, and chemical food dyes present in processed foods can all increase inflammation, raise your blood pressure, and overall cause detriment to your mental and physical health. Recent research has found that diets high in processed foods are strongly correlated with an increased risk of developing ADHD, cognitive impairment, and depression.

What exactly do we mean by processed foods? This term includes all foods that have undergone any change to their natural state- this includes washing, cleaning, cutting, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, and packaging. Processed foods also include the addition of other substances like preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other food additives like salt, sugar, and fat. If you look at processed foods through the technical definition, nearly every food we eat has been processed in one way or another. The problems with processed foods begin in forms of processing that remove or destroy nutrients. For example, peeling a fruit rids the nutrient-heavy skin, and drying or heating foods can destroy some vitamins and minerals.

Fast foods are often chemically processed, or “ultra-processed”. Such foods tend to be higher in sugar, refined carbohydrates, trans fats, and sugar. They are a major contributor to the rise of obesity and illness throughout the world. These foods also account for 25-60% of a person’s daily energy intake throughout most of the world. This is extremely problematic, as chemically processed foods often contain only artificial substances and refined ingredients with many added chemical flavoring agents, colors, and sweeteners. This means they have very little nutritional value.

In a large study on over 100,000 participants, the researchers found that eating 10% more ultra-processed foods was associated with a >10% increase in developing coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and cerebrovascular disorders. Another large study demonstrated that a diet with over 4 servings of processed foods daily was linked to an increased risk of all-cause mortality. For each additional serving of processed food, mortality increased by 18%.

The bottom line:

Unfortunately, there's no one size fits all approach to nutrition and you will have to figure out what best works for you. But sticking to the guiding principles of an anti-inflammatory, brain-boosting plan that focuses on supporting your microbiome, adding more bitter greens and healthy fats, and reducing processed and fast foods will lead to meaningful changes to your current mood and long-term mental health.

To learn more about how to develop a dietary plan catered directly to you and your mental health, click here to contact us or call 276-235-3205 to schedule your complimentary discovery call.

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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