I’ve struggled with my weight most of my life. I was a skinny kid until puberty had other plans. The dieting began in my pre-teens. I remember begging my mom for the Richard Simmons “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” VHS tape collection and breaking a sweat to “Louie Louie” in our living room. I’ve never had a great metabolism and have yo-yo dieted throughout my adult life. Pregnancy, medication, and depression have also had an impact.
In recent years I’ve given up on dieting and become much more concerned with being healthy than being thin. As I tried to learn a little bit more about nutrition and the effects of food on our health, I was very interested to learn about the connection of food not only to our physical health but to our mental health as well.
Joan Griswold, health coach with CHD’s Health and Wellness Program says “Once folks start to move more and fuel with better food, they feel better.”
CHD’s wellness program is part of a coordinated care model of healthcare where the needs of participants who are managing their mental health and recovery are coordinated within a team consisting of their primary care physician, mental health clinician, prescriber and a health coach. Participants are educated on exercise, proper nutrition, cooking, and even growing their own food. According to Griswold, an array of changes is reported by program participants: most common are increased energy, mental clarity, increased confidence and self-esteem, and interest in adhering to improved personal health habits. Increased ability to manage stress and anxiety as well as increased ability to problem solve in high stress moments, and more restful sleep are also reported.
“As I tried to learn a little bit more about nutrition and the effects of food on our health, I was very interested to learn about the connection of food not only to our physical health but to our mental health as well.”
Lisa Brecher, Marketing and Community Engagement Manager, CHD
Multiple studies dive into the food-mood connection and uncover a very close relationship between our brain and our gut. Nutritional psychiatry is an emerging field in which nutritional psychiatrists incorporate food into their overall treatment plans. Nutritional psychiatry recommends certain nutrient-packed foods while cutting back on nutritionally “empty” foods as an intervention for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. These adjustments are designed to reduce brain inflammation, and better regulate serotonin and dopamine.
When the science is broken down, it’s easy to see why what we eat can have a direct impact on our emotional health. Our gastrointestinal tract is home to billions of bacteria that directly influence the production of neurotransmitters. These are chemicals that carry messages from the gut to the brain. About 90% of the body’s serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, is stored in the gut where our food is digested and broken down into vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. It seems to make perfect sense then that keeping our gut happy would have a positive effect on our brain. Exactly how do we keep our guts smiling? One recent study suggests that eating a traditional balanced diet like the Mediterranean diet, filled with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, pro-and prebiotics, and protein and avoiding inflammation-producing foods may be the most protective against depression.1
“The basis of the nutrition education I provide is around eating foods in their naturally occurring state, says Griswold. “I recommend foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes and lean proteins. I encourage the consumption of whole grains and complex carbs which are nutrient dense, not just packed full of calories. I also encourage making things yourself so you know what is in the food you eat rather than purchasing prepackaged and processed foods.”
Here are ways to incorporate these mood-boosting foods into your routine as well as tips on other foods you may want to avoid:
Fish and Seafood
Researchers identified eating a high quantity of omega-3-rich foods as one of the five most important diet habits for preventing depression, according to a study in Nutritional Neuroscience. Recommended at least twice a week, fish and seafood like sardines, salmon, tuna, oysters, and mussels are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation in the brain, and can be a great source of vitamin D which has been linked to the production of serotonin.
Nuts and Seeds
Tryptophan, found in all nuts and seeds, is an essential amino acid that is used to produce niacin, which is essential in creating serotonin. Almonds, walnuts and chia seeds, are also good sources of fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants.
Oatmeal, 100% whole-wheat bread, and quinoa are all linked to a healthy, balanced GI tract. In contrast to whole grains, refined grains like white bread, white rice, and white flour should be avoided. The refining process removes many nutrients including fiber. Refined grains are often found in processed foods like cereals, crackers, and pastries.
If you haven’t jumped on the avocado bandwagon yet, what are you waiting for?! Avocados provide a good source of folate which helps to prevent the build-up of homocysteine, a substance that can impair circulation and delivery of nutrients to the brain. Excess homocysteine can also interfere with serotonin production.
The term “gut microbiome” refers specifically to the microorganisms living in our intestines. Eating active cultures helps get rid of unhealthy microorganisms and increases the healthy bacteria in our microbiome. Foods like kefir, yogurt (with no added sugar), kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, and tempeh, all contain important, gut-healthy flora.
Blueberries, leafy greens, yellow bell peppers, red kidney beans, these colorful foods contain gut-healthy fiber and mood-boosting vitamins and minerals, like iron, folate, magnesium, zinc, and the A and B vitamins.
Limit Sugar (including artificial sweeteners) and Processed Foods
Many processed foods offer no significant nutrients and are combined with other chemicals and additives, like dyes, preservatives, and sugary ingredients that can cause inflammation. Sugar not only causes inflammation but is also linked to lower levels of BDNF, a protein that helps our brain adapt to stress.
A diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and seafood, and fermented foods with modest amounts of lean meats and dairy and mostly void of processed and refined foods and sugars seems like the best bet when it comes to eating for your emotional health.
In addition to mental health benefits, those dedicated to making these changes in their personal health are able to significantly reduce chronic disease and increase their overall quality of life. Participants in the Health and Wellness program have seen a reduction in physical health risks such as elevated blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol.
- Lassale C, Batty GD, Baghdadli A, et al. Healthy dietary indices and risk of depression outcomes; a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Mol Psychiatry. September 26, 2018; E-pub ahead of print.
References and further reading: