You’ve probably heard the saying, “you are what you eat.” Although you won’t turn into the candy bar you ate yesterday, research suggests there is some truth behind this saying. The food we eat throughout the day has a significant impact on many areas of our lives.
The truth is the food we eat affects our physical health and our emotional and mental health as well. Most of us know the harmful effects food can have on our physical health, but our diet also significantly affects our mental health. Research indicates healthier diets can improve and even prevent mental illness. Here are 4 ways to improve your mental health through your diet:
- Limit sugar intake
The physical effects of sugar are pretty well-known by most adults. But what about the impact sugar has on our mental health?
A recent study from 2019 found that adults who regularly ate saturated fats and added sugars also had higher feelings of anxiety.
I am sure many of us can relate to turning to sugary food when feeling stressed (I know I can). That is because sugar temporarily relieves stress. But this temporary fix may contribute to a reliance on sugar, which raises the risk of obesity and other related illnesses, all of which can negatively affect our mental health.
Fruits, vegetables, yogurt, berries, chia seeds, legumes, prunes, eggs, sweet potatoes, and sugar-free smoothies are great alternatives to help ease sugar cravings.
- Mindful eating
Mindful eating is the act of remaining in the moment and aware of the food and drinks you consume. Many of us might find ourselves mindlessly eating in the car, in front of the TV, or while working, which causes us to continue eating regardless of whether we are still hungry. Mindful eating is the opposite. By removing these distractions while eating, we can focus on all our senses and be in-tuned with how our body reacts to the food we are eating. It is about being present when we are eating and when we are shopping and preparing our food.
There are many benefits to mindful eating. For example, some of us might lead hectic lives; mindful eating allows us to slow down and take a break. This break can help ease stress and anxiety. Mindful eating also assists us with noticing when we want to turn to food for reasons other than hunger.
While practicing mindful eating, here are a few tips to help you begin practicing.
- Channel all your senses. Pay close attention to how the food looks, smells, and feels as you chew. And most notably how it tastes.
- Take note. Make observations on how you feel while eating. Avoid focusing on the distractions around you and focus on you and your body. Most importantly, take note of when you are becoming full.
- Place your utensils down after each bite. This simple action gives you a chance to enjoy the food after each bite instead of speeding through your meal. This break between bites allows you to be more aware of when you are full.
- Eat regularly
Regular eating involves eating something about every three hours. Regular eating usually includes three meals and 2 or 3 snacks a day.
Regular eating usually involves:
- A mid-morning snack
- A snack in the afternoon
- A snack after dinner if required (if you’ve had an early dinner)
The important thing to remember here is everyone is different. This form of regular eating may work for some and not others, and that’s okay. Remember to eat mindfully and pay close attention to your own personal hunger cues. Healthy snacks in between meals are a great way to prevent that “hangry” (hungry + angry) feeling when we go long periods of time in between meals.
Eating regularly helps prevent your blood sugar from dropping. A drop in blood sugar can lead to feeling tired, irritable, and even depressed. Regularly eating and consuming slow-release energy foods such as rice, oats, wholegrain bread, nuts, and seeds will help keep your sugar levels steady throughout the day.
Start the day off right with a healthy breakfast. Throughout the day, rather than eating large portions, eat smaller amounts more frequently. Make sure to avoid food and beverages that make your blood sugar rapidly rise and fall. This includes sugary sweets, sugary drinks, and beverages containing alcohol.
- Listen to your gut
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate appetite, mood, and sleep. Serotonin is produced in your GI tract. The gastrointestinal tract is referred to as the “2nd brain” because it makes over 90% of the serotonin in the body. What you eat throughout the day can affect your serotonin levels which in turn affects your mental health. Depending on your body, when you are stressed out or anxious, your gut may slow down or speed up. To keep your gut in check, make sure you eat plenty of fiber, drink lots of fluid, and exercise regularly.
Foods to eat:
- Whole Grains (Fiber Source): whole wheat, oats, brown rice, and beans.
- Leafy Greens: spinach, kale, broccoli, romaine, and mustard greens. All of which help fight depression and fatigue.
- Omega-Rich: salmon, sardines, flax seeds, and walnuts. All of which play a significant role in the production of serotonin, among other essential neurotransmitters.
- Probiotics: yogurt, kefir, tempeh, and pickled vegetables contain friendly, good bacteria similar to the bacteria that occur naturally in our GI tracts. Probiotics help to reduce anxiety and stress.
Foods to limit:
- Processed Bread: bagels and white bread all causes spikes in blood sugar, causing fatigue. Choose whole-wheat options instead.
- Processed foods: ready-made, frozen TV-style dinners, deli meat, and fast food.
- Sugary Food & Drinks: soda, candy, coffee drinks, and sweets could cause a temporary boost in mood followed by a significant crash.
- Fried food: fried food is high in saturated fat and can weaken your body’s good bacteria.
Article Written By: Deanna Stone, Social Work Intern at Poverello.