Eating healthy can help us to look and feel our best physically. But little is discussed about how the food we eat can affect our mental health. Eating a diet rich in nutritious foods can help us to feel more alert and think clearly. Well-balanced meals and snacks can also help us to concentrate and improve attention span.

On the other hand, eating a diet high in unhealthy foods can affect our brain in a negative way. An inadequate diet can lead to fatigue, impair decision making skills, and slow down reaction time. A poor diet can aggravate or lead to stress and depression.

Stress and Depression

It has been shown that sugar and processed foods can cause inflammation throughout our bodies. Chronic inflammation can contribute to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, when people are overly anxious or stressed, they tend to do one of two things; turn to food for a pick-me-up or avoid it at all costs. Eat too much food and you feel sluggish and risk gaining weight. Eat too little and the resulting exhaustion will leave your brain in a fog. Both habits can take a toll on your overall mental health.

To boost your brain power, focus on including fresh fruits and vegetables throughout your day on a regular basis. Incorporating foods high in omega-3 fatty-acids such as salmon and tuna are essential. Dark leafy greens and legumes have also been shown to improve mental health outcomes.

Gut-Brain Axis

Research studies are consistently showing how we are, in fact, what we eat. Our guts and brains are physically connected through the vagus nerve, and the two  send messages to each other. The bacteria in our gut can affect our emotional behavior processed in our brain, while the brain can also alter the type of bacteria that is produced in the gut.

The American Psychological Association explains that the bacteria in our gut produce neurochemicals that regulate physiological and mental processes, including mood. Serotonin is a mood stabilizer that is believed to be produced and affected by the bacteria in our gut. On the other hand, stress is also believed to suppress the good gut bacteria.

Brain Food

Our brain and nervous system rely on the fuel we give it to work properly. Eating a well-balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains is essential to boosting your mental health. It is also important to include variety in your diet instead of eating the same thing day after day.

The top three foods to include in a healthy mental health diet are:

Complex carbohydrates – grains like brown rice, buckwheat, and quinoa are filled with fiber for lasting energy. Healthy starches like beets, sweet potatoes, and millet also include more nutritional value than the simple carbohydrates found in sugary foods like candy.

Lean proteins – good sources of protein include chicken, fish, nuts, and eggs. Including nutritious proteins in your diet will lend yourself to energy that allows you to react quickly and think clearer.

Omega-3’s – fatty acids from omega-3’s are essential for proper functioning of our brain and nervous system. These can be found in items like fatty fish, meats, nuts, and flaxseeds.

Written by BWS Dietitian Abbey Granger, MS, RDN, LD

Continue reading May 2022 Newsletter: Mental Health Awareness Month