You know that eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is important for your physical health, but did you know that it can have a huge impact on your mind, also? While scientists and doctors have known for decades that nutrition has a huge effect on physical health, they’re just now beginning to realize how important it is for mental health.
The American Psychiatric Association classifies some foods, such as Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in high levels in oily fish like sardines and salmon, to be an effective treatment for conditions like depression. What’s more, psychiatrists have recently begun pushing harder for mental health care that combines factors like diet, lifestyle, and activity levels. In fact, the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research states that diet is “as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.”
With that in mind, it’s evident that diet is linked to both physical and mental health.
The connection between dieting and mental health
Right now, upwards of 450 million people globally suffer from mental disorders like depression and anxiety. While pharmacological approaches have had some success in this area, the positive outcomes are limited and the field of psychiatry is reaching out for different, more effective solutions.
These solutions are beginning to focus more and more on nutrition. Certain nutrients, like omega-3s, B vitamins, zinc, Vitamin D, iron, and magnesium are hugely important to brain health and, while our current diets are dense in calories, they’re often lacking hugely in these nutrients. Some scientists believe that this nutritional deficiency may be contributing to the startling rise of mental health conditions and there’s some science to back it up.
For example, low levels of maternal Vitamin D have been found to increase a child’s risk of developing Schizophrenia later in life and a deficiency in key B vitamins has been linked to higher instances of depression. In fact, there are upwards of 10 nutritional deficiencies that may cause depression. These include the following:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies are common, even in people who take fish oil supplements. Foods like salmon, walnuts, tuna, halibut, and flaxseeds are good sources of Omega-3s. This nutrient plays a large role in decreasing inflammation and improving brain function in the areas of mood and memory. Because the body can’t make these nutrients, it’s important to eat enough of them or get them through supplementation.
- Vitamin D: A lack of Vitamin D has been connected to conditions like dementia, autism, and depression. In seniors, it’s common for Vitamin D levels to drop in the winter, when exposure to sun (the richest source of the nutrient) is difficult due to icy sidewalks and roads. Fortunately, seniors can get the correct levels of Vitamin D through proper supplementation.
- Magnesium: Nearly 50% of Americans have a Magnesium deficiency. Things like excess salt, sugar, coffee, and diuretics can deplete magnesium levels, which can lead to conditions like anxiety and depression.
- Vitamin B complex: People who get enough B vitamins (Vitamin B-6 and B-12, specifically), are at reduced risk of stroke and generally have healthier skin. What’s more, a 2009 study found that upwards of ¼ of seniors who suffered from depression were also deficient in Vitamin B-12.
- Folate: When people have low levels of Folate, they have only a 7% response rate to antidepressant treatments. Conversely, people with adequate levels of Folate respond at a rate of 44%. Folate can be found in foods like beans, citrus fruits, and dark leafy greens.
- Amino Acids: Amino acids are an important nutrient for proper brain function. Low Amino Acid levels can cause symptoms that mimic dementia, like a foggy, unfocused mind and depressive feelings. Amino acids can be found in beef, fish, seeds, nuts, and eggs.
- Iron: Iron deficiency is a common problem in female seniors. Unfortunately, this common deficiency leads to things like irritability, brain fog, depression, and forgetfulness. Iron is found in high levels in foods like fish, poultry, and red meat.
- Zinc: Zinc deficiency is a quite common in the American population. Our bodies need Zinc to break down food and protect us from allergies. Zinc also enables us to produce protein and control immune inflammation.
- Iodine: Our thyroids need iodine to work efficiently and a deficiency can be a huge problem. The thyroid plays a role in everything from metabolism to brain performance and when it stops working correctly, it can cause depressive symptoms. Seniors may benefit from supplementing iodine, although you should talk to your doctor first.
- Selenium: Selenium is important for the production of antioxidants and maintaining good mental health.
Eating for Mental Health
So we know that dieting correctly is good for your body and mind, right? But now the question is how you can eat to boost your brain function and keep yourself as happy and healthy as possible, both physically and mentally.
Here are some tips:
Avoid sugary drinks
Sugary drinks can produce feelings of anxiety and deplete our bodies of important nutrients, so instead of reaching for a soda when you’re feeling thirsty, grab a cup of water instead. Drinking at least 8 glasses of water each day helps us avoid dehydration, which can cause symptoms like sluggish minds, dizziness, and constipation.
Always eat breakfast
Breakfast truly is the most important meal of the day, and avoiding it can have dire consequences on your mental health. Skipping meals makes your brain feel foggy and bogs your metabolism down for the rest of the day. When you wake up, reach for a balanced breakfast with plenty of protein, fiber, and fruit. Quick options include whole grain granola or high-protein Greek yogurt.
Focus on a well-rounded plate
When it comes time to eat dinner, you’ll want to avoid things like fried, refined, or sugary foods. These contribute to both weight gain and conditions like depression and diabetes. Instead, ensure that your dinner plates focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, unsaturated fats (like olive oil) and fish. This diet helps protect you from depression and Alzheimer’s.
Shift your shopping
One of the easiest tips you’ll ever get about eating for your mental health is to shop around the outside of the store rather than the inner aisles. Most grocery stores keep the fresh, frozen, and refrigerated foods (which are generally less processed) on the perimeter of the store, and stock the processed foods (like chips, cookies, candies, and packaged foods) in the inner aisles. Sticking to the perimeter as much as possible can help you make better shopping decisions and stock your home with healthier food.
While eating healthfully can have a positive impact on your waistline, it can also do great things for your mental health. From reducing your risk for depression to protecting you against degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, a healthy and well-balanced diet truly does nourish you from the inside out.