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From a young age, we’re taught that eating well helps us look and feel our physical best. What we’re not always told is that good nutrition significantly affects our mental health, too (Smith et al., 2020). A healthy, well-balanced diet can help us think clearly and feel more alert. It can also improve concentration and attention span (Gomez-Pinilla, 2008).  Conversely, an inadequate diet can lead to fatigue, impaired decision-making, and can slow down reaction time (Sathyanarayana Rao et al., 2008). In fact, a poor diet can actually aggravate, and may even lead to, stress and depression (Opie et al., 2017). This is why it is so important to understand how nutrition affects mental health.  

One of the biggest health impairments is society’s reliance on processed foods. These foods are high in flours and sugar and train the brain to crave more of them.  Nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, don’t (Schulte et al., 2015).  A lot of the processed foods we eat are highly addictive and stimulate the dopamine centers in our brain, which are associated with pleasure and reward (Schulte et al., 2015). In order to stop craving unhealthy foods, you’ve got to stop eating those foods. You actually start to change the physiology in the brain when you pull added sugars and refined carbohydrates from your diet (Gearhardt et al., 2011). 

The relationship between stress and depression

The consumption of sugar and processed foods can trigger inflammation in both the body and brain.  The results are mood disorders like anxiety and depression (Fond et al., 2014). When experiencing stress or depression, processed foods are often the go-to choice for a quick mood boost. During challenging periods, a complete breakfast may be substituted with a cup of coffee, while high-fat, high-calorie fast food replaces fresh fruits and vegetables. In moments of sadness, a pint of ice cream might serve as dinner or lead to skipping the meal altogether (Rao & Andrade, 2010). 

The American Dietetic Association highlights that individuals tend to overeat or undereat when facing depression or stress. Overeating can result in sluggishness and weight gain. Undereating leads to exhaustion, making it difficult to break the habit (Thesing et al., 2016). In either scenario, a poor diet during times of stress and depression exacerbates the situation, perpetuating a harmful cycle. However, it is possible to overcome this cycle. 

To enhance mental health, it is important to prioritize a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.  The darker and leafier, the better, because these provide the most brain protection (Jacka et al., 2017). Consuming foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, is also beneficial (Grosso et al., 2014). Additionally, incorporating brain foods like nuts, seeds, and legumes, including beans and lentils, can contribute to improved mental well-being. 

How a healthy gut can affect mental health

Recent research continues to support the age-old saying that you are what you eat.  This is especially true regarding the profound relationship between our intestines and brain. The physical connection between our guts and brain is established through the vagus nerve.  This enables mutual communication between the two (Carabotti et al., 2015). Interestingly, not only can the gut influence emotional behavior in the brain, but it also works the other way.  The brain can also impact the composition of gut bacteria! (Collins & Bercik, 2009). 

According to the American Psychological Association, gut bacteria play a significant role in producing various neurochemicals that the brain relies on.  These regulate physiological and mental processes, including mood (Grenham et al., 2011). It is estimated that approximately 95% of the body’s serotonin, a crucial mood stabilizer, is generated by gut bacteria (Rieder et al., 2017). Moreover, stress is believed to suppress the presence of beneficial gut bacteria.  This further influenes the delicate balance within the gut-brain axis (Foster et al., 2017). 

How to incorporate mindful eating

Being mindful of your eating experience and food choices is crucial for maintaining well-balanced meals and snacks (Herbert & Blechert, 2017). To foster this awareness, nutritionists suggest keeping a food journal.  That way, you can track what, where, and when you eat, providing valuable insights into your eating patterns (Clifford et al., 2015).  If you tend to overeat during times of stress, it can be beneficial to pause and acknowledge your feelings. When the urge to eat arises, recordit (Frayn & Knäuper, 2018). This practice can help uncover the underlying issues causing the emotional eating. On the other hand, you may find yourself undereating.  If so, mplementing a schedule of five or six smaller meals instead of three large ones may be helpful (Mann et al., 2015). 

In some cases, stress and depression can escalate to the point where managing them alone becomes challenging.  This is likely to result in development of eating disorders (Treasure et al., 2020). If you struggle to control your eating habits, seeking professional counseling is crucial to safeguard your health (Hawkins et al., 2019). It’s important to remember that asking for help is a courageous step. It signifies strength and recognition that certain situations are too overwhelming to face alone. 

Mental healthy brain food 

The brain and nervous system rely on proper nutrition to synthesize proteins, cells, and tissues (Gomez-Pinilla, 2008). To optimize functioning, the body requires a diverse range of carbohydrates, proteins, and minerals (Wurtman et al., 2002). Nutritionists recommend incorporating a variety of foods into meals and snacks instead of sticking to repetitive choices (Dietitians of Canada, 2021). 

To enhance mental functioning, here are the top three foods to include in a healthy diet: 

  • Complex carbohydrates such as brown rice and starchy vegetables provide sustained energy. Nutrient-dense options like quinoa, millet, beets, and sweet potatoes offer greater nutritional value compared to simple carbohydrates found in sugary treats (Bray & Popkin, 2014). 
  • Lean proteins contribute to energy production, supporting quick thinking and responsiveness. Good sources of protein include chicken, meat, fish, eggs, soybeans, nuts, and seeds (Leidy et al., 2015). 
  • Fatty acids play a vital role in optimal brain and nervous system function. Sources rich in fatty acids include fish, meat, eggs, nuts, and flaxseeds (Gómez-Pinilla, 2008). 

Here are some healthy eating tips: 

  • Avoid processed snacks like potato chips that can hinder concentration. Steer clear of sugar-filled treats and sugary drinks, which cause energy fluctuations (Roberto et al., 2012). 
  • Consume healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado to support brain function (Gómez-Pinilla, 2008). 
  • Opt for nutritious snacks when hunger strikes.  Some good options include fruits, nuts, hard-boiled eggs, baked sweet potatoes, or edamame.  These provide more sustainable energy compared to packaged products (Beaulieu et al., 2020). 
  • Create a healthy shopping list and stick to it, avoiding impulsive unhealthy purchases (Hollands et al., 2017). 
  • Refrain from shopping on an empty stomach to prevent unhealthy impulse buying (Hollands et al., 2017). 
  • Be mindful of where and when you eat. Avoid eating in front of the TV, which can lead to distraction and overeating. Instead, find a calm place to sit, relax, and focus on the eating experience. Chew slowly, savor the taste, and notice the texture of the food (Marchiori et al., 2017).