When it comes to our mental health, it can be easy to overlook just how important nutrition and diet plays a role. We often forget that the food that we eat has a direct impact on our psychological well-being.
There's more to the connection between mental health and food than just getting good nutrients. Let's take a look at eight ways improving what's on your plate can help improve what's on your mind.
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Good Nutrition Brings the Mind Back to Baseline
The latest scientific research now establishes a strong connection between our diet and our mental health.
However, dieting isn't necessarily a silver bullet for psychology. You can think about your diet as helping get your mind and body back up to a baseline of health.
As the old saying goes: a healthy body is a healthy mind.
This baseline allows you to improve a wide range of physical and mental conditions that can all be contributing to poor mental health. Improving your overall physical well-being is going to help give you a solid foundation for improving your mental well-being.
The “Gut-Brain” Connection
Your digestive system and your brain are much more closely length than you might expect. We often don't think about these two systems of the body as working together, but they actually constitute a single larger system that helps shape how we think, act, and feel.
Here's a really basic example to help get your head around the idea. When you have a craving for unhealthy junk food, that craving stems from a combination of signals being sent from your digestive system to your brain that influence your mood and your action.
You can make nutritional changes to help improve the outlook for your gut. This includes adding fiber, probiotics, and prebiotics to your diet.
These Nutrients Help Restore Your Mind
There are several nutrients that have well-documented links to mental health. Deficiencies in any of these nutrients can contribute to poor mental health and make it more difficult, in general, to get a handle on your cognitive well-being.
Here's a quick list of some of the nutrients that you should keep an eye out for.
- Zinc—Found in lentils, beans, seafood, meat, and vegetables
- B Vitamins—Found in leafy greens, seafood, meat, and seeds
- Probiotics—Naturally occurring in fermented products like kefir, yogurt, sourdough bread, and kimchi
- Omega-3—Found in fish, seeds, and walnuts to name a few
- Antioxidants—You can get antioxidants from berries and citrus fruits, spinach, and even potatoes
- Vitamin D—Fish and eggs are a great source of vitamin D
If you have a dietary restriction that limits some of the options listed above, there are supplements that feature any or all of these nutrients.
I also wanted to quickly highlight vitamin D. The research supporting the connection between vitamin D and mental health is now well established.
Making sure that you're getting enough vitamin D in your diet can be a great easy step to take to improve your mental health.
Food is Best Shared with Friends
Well the big focus is on nutrition and the content of the food that you're eating, we shouldn't overlook the social aspect of food.
Cooking and dining with friends and family is a great way to improve your mental health.
Poor mental health has a way of isolating us and making us feel alone. One of the best ways to combat this is by sharing time with loved ones.
Having a friend over for dinner, meeting a family member out for lunch, or cooking a healthy breakfast with your partner are all great ways to connect with your social support group while also improving your nutritional health.
Blood Sugar and Mental Health
Another clear example of how our diet can affect our mental health is the connection between refined sugars and carbs, blood sugar and our mental health.
Diets that have too many processed carbohydrates and refined sugars can cause your blood sugar levels to spike. These spikes create cycles of quick highs with a lengthy crash.
This contributes to rapid mood swings, feelings of lethargy, and cravings for sugar and processed carbs.
Reduce Inflammation Through Your Diet
New understandings of mental health are starting to uncover the connection between inflammation and psychological conditions like anxiety and depression.
Foods rich in sugars, processed carbs, and trans fats all contribute to an increased inflammation.
Fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods can help reduce inflammation. This can have a positive effect on your mental health.
Food Lifestyle Tips for a Healthier Mind
Talking about the connection between nutrition and mental health can hit on some difficult subjects. There is a problematic link between dieting culture and poor mental health.
These were a few ideas on how you can recenter your relationship to nutrition, food, and mental health.
Focus on nutrition and mindfulness rather than weight or dieting
Eat whole foods and healthy alternatives to processed foods whenever possible
Explore foods with personal, spiritual, or cultural significance
Avoid moralizing what you eat—there are no “bad” foods, only habits we can change
Mental Health is Complex
The last thing that I want to say about the connection between nutrition and mental health is that your psychological well-being is a very complicated subject. Nutrition plays an important role, but so do other factors.
Everything from your family's medical history to your socioeconomic condition will play a role in your overall mental health. Nutrition is a foundational aspect of our overall well-being, but you do need to make sure that you look at the big picture when you're working on improving your overall mental well-being.
A few other mental health hacks include taking care of your physical fitness, being more social with your friend group, and doing what you can to improve your financial situation like canceling unnecessary subscriptions that clutter your mind as well as your budget. A positive mental well-being can be achieved on several fronts and small lifestyle changes, not just diet alone.
The link between our mental well-being and what we eat on a daily basis is now strongly established by researchers. Eating a healthy diet rich in nutrients, probiotics, and antioxidants, can help you improve not only your mental well-being, but also the health of your brain itself.
Having a healthier diet also improves your overall baseline health.
After all, you are what you eat.