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How Eating A Balanced Diet Can Impact Mental And Emotional Health

Written By Rachel Kreider, MPH, RD

We already know that we are what we eat, but did you ever think about how this common saying may apply specifically to your mental health? Therapy, meditation and yoga are some of the things that are usually associated with improvements to mental and emotional health—but the connection of our mood to our diet is sometimes overlooked. Holistic Health, also known as integrative health, is an approach to well-being that considers the whole person, including their mental, emotional, social, spiritual and physical well-being, and the interplay between these elements of wellness.1 Holistic health practitioners have long recognized that our diet can support mental health through multiple pathways and there is growing interest among researchers regarding how we may be able to influence mental health with our diets. There is even a new(ish) field of psychiatry called “nutritional psychiatry” which looks at how things from nutrients to foods to overall dietary patterns can affect mental health.2

READ MORE: Looking For A Lifestyle Change? 5 Tips To Achieve Holistic Health

Dietary Patterns And Mental Health

The link between diet and mental health makes sense, as the brain relies on nutrients like lipids (fats), amino acids (the building blocks of protein), vitamins and minerals in order to function properly. Deficiencies or inadequate intake of these nutrients are associated with things like depression or cognitive impairment.3 Several systematic reviews and meta-analyses (which are thorough summaries of research on a given topic) have found that healthy diets are associated with better mental health.45678

Here are a few food and mood studies to chew on:

  • A 2013 systematic review and meta-analysis found that even across various cultures (including studies on American, European, Asian and Australian people), diets that contained lots of fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains were associated with better mental health outcomes.4
  • A 2010 study found that a diet rich in fruit, veggies, beef, lamb, fish and traditional whole-grain foods was associated with a lower likelihood of having depression and anxiety, while dietary patterns that are richer in processed and “unhealthy” foods (a more traditional Western diet) were associated with a higher likelihood of psychological symptoms and disorders.8 I’d say that’s a literal and figurative sad face for a diet filled with processed foods!
  • A 2013 meta-analysis found that people who ate a primarily Mediterranean diet had less risk of cognitive impairment and depression.9 Some examples include: High intake of fruits, vegetables, cereal grains, pulses, nuts and seeds; Moderate consumption of dairy products, fish, poultry, eggs and olive oil; Low to moderate intake of wine at mealtime and low intake of red, processed meats and saturated fats.

Recipe For Good Mental and Emotional Health

Mental health is complicated, and many disorders require treatment with medications and/or therapy. Diet should be viewed as a way to complement physician-recommended treatments but should certainly not be overlooked as part of your plan to support your mental health. Here are a few takeaways (the proverbial doggy bag of this article) to help you make some positive changes to your diet:

  • Plant foods including fruits, vegetables and many culinary herbs are incredible sources of antioxidants and compounds that may help protect cells from damaging free radicals. Fill as much of your plate as you can with these!11
  • The brain uses carbohydrates to make brain chemicals that are linked to our sense of well-being, so focus on healthy sources of carbs like whole grains, fruits and veggies as part of your daily diet.12
  • Neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, most of which come from protein in the diet. The research discussed above showed that lean proteins, especially fish, were linked to better mental health, so focus on those when choosing protein.12
  • More than 50% of our brain is made of fat, much of which is from the omega-3 family that many people do not get enough of through their diet.12 When you eat fat, focus on healthy fats like the ones from fatty fish, avocado and extra virgin olive oil.
  • Try to eat at regular intervals to keep your blood sugar steady and your brain fueled up throughout the day.
  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! The brain needs lots of water to stay in tip-top shape, so keep your water bottle handy and sip away.

The good news about all of this is that most of the foods and dietary patterns that are associated with good mental health are also often associated with long term health benefits. If you make healthy changes to your diet for your mental health, you may have a positive impact on your physical health as well. Those are some major bonuses when following a healthy diet!

READ MORE: Managing Stress In Chaotic Times

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