Nutrition and Mental Health

Have you ever been hangry?

If you’re anything like me, eating a salad doesn’t quite hit the spot.  Nooooo… only a greasy burger, large fries, a latte, and chocolate peanut butter cups can restore order to my universe when I’m that far gone.

If that’s the case for you, too, it must not come as a surprise to you that food can influence your mood.

And not just your mood at a particular time, but your overall mental health over weeks, months, and even years. So if you can’t bear to read a bad word about your beloved ice cream, potato chips, or bread, jump off this article now.  

What I’m about to tell you about food for mental health won’t be pretty.

Let me start by saying that I’m the skeptic in the back rolling her eyes when I hear fads in the mental health community. But I decided to wade into the whole gut health movement before deciding if it’s total bullshit.  So I started by reading Julia Ross’s The Mood Cure and learned some fascinating information about the ways that nutrition affects our brain’s biochemistry and, ultimately, our mental health.

The data and conclusions about brain biochemistry and mental health check out.  

And I just thought, “Wow. Why didn’t they have a class about nutrition and eating for mental health wellness in graduate school?” No such class existed even in my training program for neuropsychology which focused on the brain’s function and impact on emotions and behavior.  This is the kind of information that people are looking for and need.  

How Foods Affect Mental Health

Our brains run on chemicals called neurotransmitters which are made up of amino acids. The amino acids come from the food that we eat.  And where does our food end up after we eat it? In our digestive system.

Hence why you’ve probably heard or seen gut health = mental health.

The amino acids are converted into neurotransmitters that help the brain function properly. This translates into emotional well being because the mind and body are equipped to handle stressful situations, concentrate on a difficult task, and enjoy a happy moment in equal measure.

But when the food you’re eating isn’t nutritious, your mental health will suffer.

The quality of the food in the average American diet has significantly declined in the last 50-75 years.  It’s full of processed foods, carbohydrates, fillers, and sugars. Even the good foods like chicken, leafy greens, etc. contain less of these essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals than they once did. The result is that while we may eat “well”, what we’re eating doesn’t contain enough of the nutrients and minerals we need to sustain healthy emotional functioning.  

So which are the worst foods for mental health wellness?

According to Ross, the foods most responsible for our current decline in mental health are:

  • Sugar and White-flour starch
  • Wheat (and anything containing gluten)
  • Vegetable oil, margarine, hydrogenated (i.e. trans) fats, etc.
  • Soy
  • Diet foods (particularly with aspartame)
  • Food additives (e.g. caffeine, coloring, preservatives, etc.)

Now be honest, how much of the food that you eat falls into the categories above? I’m willing to bet quite a lot.  This isn’t meant to shame you for your food choices. It’s just that these foods can easily sneak into our diets without us realizing it.

You’re probably wondering which foods support mental health.

Well, according to Ross in the Mood Cure, good food for mental health include:

  • Protein (e.g. fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs, beef, pork, lamb, and dairy products)
  • Good fats (e.g. omega-3s, saturated fats)
  • Vegetables
  • Good Carbs (e.g. fruits, legumes, and grains)

Ross also recommends eating regularly, eating enough, and organic or range-fed if possible.  She goes on to offer 2 weeks’ worth of sample menus for eating at home and while you’re out. I’m still halfway through reading it as the information in it can be dense and technical.  I’ll be sure to post a full review with my overall thoughts when I’m done.

I hope this post has given you food for thought.

Maybe you started the new year with health-related goals and perhaps you fell off track.  So I hope you’ve found this information helpful especially as we near the end of the first quarter of 2019 and you’re reviewing your progress.  Don’t judge yourself too harshly. It’s very too late to start again. March 9th is just a good a date as January 1st. ;)

And if you feel your mental health is being negatively affected by nutrition, feel free to reach out to us by calling (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity ConsultWe’ll work collaboratively with your primary doctor, nutritionist, and the rest of your treatment care team to get you feeling better.

Envision Wellness is a private practice that offers psychotherapy, psychological testing, and life coaching in Miami, FL.  Our team has a passion for helping others achieve happy, fulfilling, and change-making lives that make the world a better place.  Each therapist has their areas of expertise.  Not sure who you’d like to work with?  Click here to schedule a free 20-minute phone consult to help you decide.

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