Feed your mood with better food

By Shauna Schultz, RD

Many people associate diet and its impact with physical health. But, what about mental health? Does quality of diet affect mental health? While maintaining mental health is complicated, and nutrition and diet are certainly not a cure, good nutrition is an important factor in maintaining mental well-being.

mood foodWhat and how you eat can help increase energy levels and concentration as well as manage cravings and emotions. Healthy eating patterns and good nutritional status can even help manage depression and anxiety. Let’s explore a few strategies and nutrients that play a role in mental well-being.

Look at your diet as a whole. Take a look at the bigger picture, as it is more likely to have a larger impact on your mental and emotional well-being. Are you eating adequately and regularly throughout the day?

A hungry brain is an irritable brain! Think about how you feel after not eating for a long time – cranky, tired, forgetful, and craving fatty and sugary foods all come to mind for me. The brain needs consistent fuel — deprive it and managing emotions and stress are put on the back burner. Is your diet balanced?

Balance is also key. Meals should include complex carbohydrates (whole grains, starchy vegetables, legumes), lean proteins, and healthy fats. The brain relies on carbohydrates for energy, and carbohydrate-rich foods are needed to make serotonin (our ‘feel good’ hormone), so do not overly restrict. Adequacy, regularity, and balance all work together to manage hunger and blood sugar and fuel all essential functions.

Choose anti-inflammatory foods. Several studies have associated increased fruit and vegetable intake with a lower risk of depression and increased happiness. A colorful diet contains more vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients to quell inflammation and combat oxidative stress. Vitamin C in particular helps protect the brain from oxidative stress. So aim for a variety of fruits and vegetables with each meal.

Individual nutrients matter, too. Food provides building blocks for the brain in the form of neurotransmitters and in the body in the form of hormones. The presence, or lack of these building blocks, impacts how well we function emotionally and physically – from increased alertness and faster reaction times to improved mood, better sleep, and reduced anxiety. In particular, nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin D, Selenium, Magnesium, fiber, and omega-3’s promote good mental health

Gut-brain health. The gut has been referred to as the body’s second brain, manufacturing its own neurotransmitters. It seems the gut-brain connection is powerful as both communicate with each other to direct mood and behavior. Boosting good gut flora through pre- and probiotics helps nourish good gut flora and promote good gut-brain health.

The bottom line is that mental health is just as important as physical health and deserves our attention as most of us will be touched with some kind of mental health problem in our lives. It is estimated that one in four adults have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Acknowledging nutrition as the foundation needed for mental and physical health will help positively influence both.

Mood-lifting meals

To tie all of these elements together, try the following better mood food meals:

Breakfast: oatmeal with bananas, blueberries, and chopped walnuts (prebiotics, fiber, B-6, antioxidants, omega-3s)

Lunch: mixed greens with chickpeas, quinoa, avocado, sunflower seeds, and a whole grain roll (B-6, folate, fiber, antioxidants, Magnesium, Selenium)

Dinner: lentil-mushroom soup with a spinach, orange, and fennel salad (folate, B-6, fiber, antioxidants, Selenium, possibly vitamin D)

Snacks: yogurt with hemp hearts and strawberries; dark chocolate and almonds; popcorn with nutritional yeast (vitamin D, Magnesium, probiotics, omega-3’s, folate, B-12)