How food can improve your mental health
Every wonder if you can eat your way to feeling mentally healthy?
The field of psychology as a whole has acknowledged that lifestyle factors, like your home life or your working conditions, can have a huge impact on your mental and emotional wellbeing. But we’ve been slower to acknowledge how your diet influences your mental health—just as much as factors like the family you grew up with. In fact, food is the most direct way we can influence our cells, our genes, and ultimately, our health, and there is some promising research demonstrating just how big this impact can be.
Historically, most nutrition science has relied on data from epidemiological research, which is research that demonstrates correlation (e.g. being tall is associated with being heavier), not causation (e.g. being taller doesn’t cause weight gain), which is an important distinction.
Studies that demonstrate causation are called randomized controlled trials, and they test the effects of one variable to see if they are responsible for a specific consequence, such as whether eating chocolate every day can improve your memory. This kind of study allows us to say that eating chocolate is the variable that causes improvements in memory, and not everything else that you’re eating and doing throughout the day.
Randomized controlled trials are considered scientifically sound and very important tools in clinical research. More and more randomized controlled trials are being done in order to assess true causation regarding particular dietary patterns and foods and how that affects our mental health.
Foods that have a nutritional profile with lots of vitamins and minerals are classified as nutrient dense and they can significantly affect the health of our minds and bodies. One direct way that food impacts our mental health is through our gut. You may have already heard that our gut is being classified as our second brain because of the constant communication that it has with our brain. It has been named the enteric nervous system and it can function independent of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In fact, communication goes both ways: from the gut to the brain and from the brain to the gut.
The majority of our immune system—70-80%—resides in our gut and many of our gut microbes are responsible for producing neurotransmitters and hormones that affect our mood, appetite, and behavior. For example, one gut microbe named Bifidobacterium (a common strand found in a lot of probiotics) produces the neurotransmitter known as GABA, which helps us feel calm and relaxed. Eating certain foods can either allow this gut microbe to grow and flourish or die away.
Nutrient dense foods that support the growth of gut microbes like Bifidobacterium and other ones that directly affect our mood and behavior positively include fruit, vegetables, resistant starch, fiberous foods, fermented foods, eggs, and fish. These foods have consistently been shown to have positive mental health benefits when they are included in a person’s diet.
This is because when these foods are digested and broken down into their individual pieces and smallest particles, they are used to help feed our good gut microbes. These good gut microbes in turn, support our health by producing their own vitamins like vitamin K2 and neurotransmitters.
They also provide essential nutrients that our brains need to function optimally. These nutrients include:
- Omega-3 fats, which are best found in eggs (eat the yolk!), nuts and seeds (flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts), and cold water fish (salmon, tuna, herring)
- B vitamins, particularly folate and B12 which are found in vegetables like asparagus, spinach, grass fed beef, liver, sardines and clams
- Minerals like selenium, magnesium and zinc, which are found in dark leafy vegetables and seafood, especially oysters.
All of these foods and nutrients are considered serious nutrient dense brain food and ways to feed your mental.
Extensive research has now demonstrated that the content of your diet, as well as the quality, relates to your risk for developing depression. Even if you’ve never experienced depression or any other mental health challenge, your food can still put you at risk for it.
One study in particular speaks to the magnitude of just how much food relates to depression. The SMILES trial, a 12 week single blind, randomized controlled trial tested a Mediterranean style dietary pattern with over 50 individuals diagnosed with moderate to severe depression to see if this would decrease their symptoms.
The Mediterranean diet consists of whole grains, nuts, legumes, fatty fish like sardines and salmon, lots of vegetables and fresh fruit, as well as healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil and olives. This kind of dietary pattern emphasizes whole foods that come from nature with an emphasis on vegetables and fruits that are in season and lots of healthy fats to keep us full and satisfied.
The treatment group participated in seven individual nutritional sessions with a clinical dietician who provided dietary advice and nutritional counseling. They received direct instruction to eat foods within the Mediterranean diet and to decrease consumption of processed and sugary foods.
In contrast, the control group (non-treatment group) received seven sessions of social support that discussed topics of interest unrelated to food and diet. They were not instructed to change their diet.
Depression symptoms were assessed before and after treatment via a depression rating scale. Results showed that the treatment group and individuals who most adhered to the Mediterranean diet had significantly greater improvement in their symptoms compared with the social support group. In other words, the study showed that people with moderate to severe depression can decrease their symptoms just by altering their diet.
Feeding your mental health and optimizing your overall wellness is true empowerment. It is your fundamental right to choose the kinds of foods that will help nourish your body and mind, helping to build health and prevent disease. After all, food is the fuel and medicine that allows you to be the person you want to be in this world.
As you grow your ability to control the content and quality of the food you eat, you might also find you are growing stronger and more confident, increasing the odds of becoming more physically and mentally resilient to rise above and manage challenges as you go through life.
So how can you start to feed your mental health with the food in your kitchen? Start with adding 1-2 more vegetables to your regular meals until you work your way up to having half of your plate dedicated to plants that are colorful and in season. Gradually reduce the amount of processed and sugary foods you’re eating, and instead concentrate on eating foods that are simply made by nature. Choose healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil and avocados. And of course, drink more water.
The process of learning how to feed your brain and body for health is just that: a process. It takes time, curiosity and practice. The good news is: you can always start with your next meal.
Dr. Nicole Barile is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified Nutritional Therapy Consultant practicing in New York, and her mission is to educate people on the power of food and lifestyle practices on the path to mental and emotional wellness. Dr. Barile received her Ph.D from Hofsta University, and you can learn more about her practice at FeedYourMental.com.
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It is so true that research into how foods affect our mental health is sorely lacking and how crucial it is to acknowledge the often causal relationship between food and cognitive and emotional consequences. This article astutely evokes a much needed re-visiting of the significance in that relationship.