How Does Diet Affect Mental Health?

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Most of us are familiar with the fact that our diets affect our physical health but have we ever asked ourselves “how does diet affect mental health”?

If what we put into our bodies has such a profound effect physically, why can’t’ it affect our brain and how it functions.

Nutrition is actually important for total body health and that includes our brain function and emotions.

We have all heard the saying, “Garbage in equals garbage out”.

I’d say that pretty much sums it up.

Let’s see what science has to say about this topic.

Ways Diet affects mental health

Your brain is constantly “on”, 24/7, even when you sleep your brain is still hard at work.

It stands to reason that the brain would require a constant supply of energy in order to carry out its many functions.

Just like an expensive car, performs best when supplied with premium fuel, your brain requires a nutritional diet.

More and more research is finding that a nutritious diet isn’t just good for the body, it is good for the brain too.

According to psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD, Assistant clinical professor at Columbia University, “Diet is potentially the most powerful intervention available. By helping patients shape their diets, we can improve their mental health decreasing the risk of psychiatric disorders”.How Does Diet Affect Mental Health?

Did you know that 1 in 4 Americans and 1 in 5 Canadians will suffer some type of mental illness each year and that depression is the second leading cause of disability after heart disease?

What’s worse is that it doesn’t just affect adults. Half of all long-term mental disorders begin by age 14.

Recent studies have shown that the risk of depression increases 80% when you compare teens with the lowest quality diet (what is known as the Western diet) to those who eat a high-quality whole foods diet. The risk of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) also increases.

There is even some interest in the possibility of food allergies being linked to bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Brain development

We really are what we eat as the saying goes.

When we eat real, whole food that nourishes us it ensures we can build the enzymes, brain tissue and neurotransmitters required to transfer signals and information from various parts of the brain to the body.

Of course, when we load up on pop and chips we are NOT giving our brain or body what they need to function properly.

Yet when we are feeling anxious or depressed that is what we crave, very counter-intuitive.

Brain growth

A diet rich in omega 3’s and zinc may cause a change in brain protein helping to increase connections between brain cells.

This is important through all stages of life.

However, a diet high in saturated fats and sugar can have a very negative impact on brain proteins.

Fills gut with healthy bacteria

Trillions of good, beneficial bacteria live in the gut. Their role is to fight off harmful bacteria and keep your immune system at its’ peak.

Some gut bacteria even make brain-powering B-vitamins.

Food that contains beneficial bacteria (probiotics) helps maintain a healthy gut environment. A healthier gut will decrease inflammation, this, in turn, affects mood and cognition.

A diet that is high-fat or high-sugar is bad for the gut and brain health. Some research even suggests that a high-sugar diet worsens symptoms, as well as increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Nutrition and the brain

It is believed that certain foods may play a role in causing mental disorders or in making symptoms worse.

How Does Diet Affect Mental Health? - Mediteranean Diet

A brain-healthy diet follows the same principles as a heart-healthy or weight loss plan.

It is important to limit high-fat and high sugar food.

Instead, eat plenty of whole fruits and vegetables,  healthy fats like olive oil or avocado, and whole grains.

In other words, why not follow the Mediterranean Diet or something very close to it.

It is an ideal diet for optimal physical and mental health.

Recent large European studies have shown that this diet may help prevent not just treat symptoms of depression.

The trick is to select whole foods that pack maximum nutrition with the least amount of calories.

These nutrients might be particularly effective against mental disorders:

B vitamins

People with low B-12 levels show more brain inflammation as well as higher rates of depression and dementia. Low folate also creates a low mood.

Iron

Low iron has been linked to depression

Omega-3s

These healthy fatty acids are known to improve thinking, memory and possibly mood.

Zinc

Zinc affects our ability to react to stress. Zinc can be found in oysters and mussels.

Fermented foods

Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and yogurt with live cultures provide good gut bacteria and may help reduce anxiety.

Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate contains antioxidants that increase blood flow to the brain

Medication

Always work with your doctors and take any medication as prescribed.

Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet will not only help improve your mood but may also help your medications work more efficiently.

Be sure to discuss with your doctor what you should eat, not just what you shouldn’t.

Hopefully, in the near future a simple, 5-minute nutrition analysis will become a part of every psychiatric visit.

How you can manage your mood through food

Eating regularly is important because if your blood sugar drops you may feel tired, irritable and depressed.

Blood sugars can be kept more stable by eating regularly and consuming healthy foods that slowly release energy over time. This is true for diabetics and non-diabetics alike, we all have blood sugar fluctuations. It is much more severe in diabetics.

Slow-release foods would include:

How Does Diet Affect Mental Health? - whole grains

  • pasta
  • rice
  • oats
  • whole-grain bread
  • cereals
  • nuts
  • seeds

A few tips to help make it easier

  • start your day right with a healthy breakfast
  • try eating smaller portions spaced more regularly rather than a large lunch and dinner
  • avoid sweets, biscuits, sugary drinks and alcohol as they make your blood sugar rise and fall rapidly

Stay hydrated

Not drinking enough can make it more difficult to think or concentrate.

You may also get constipated which never feels good.

Try to drink between 6-8 glasses each day.

Tea, coffee, juices and smoothies all count towards your fluid intake. Just beware that these may contain caffeine or sugar that may be counter-intuitive.

Fruit and veggies

Fruit and vegetables contain plenty of vitamins, minerals and fibre that is essential to our physical and mental health.

You will certainly increase the range of vitamins and minerals you receive each day by choosing a variety of fruits and vegetables.

If you choose a rainbow of colours you are more likely to be consuming a wider range of nutrients. It also looks more appealing which makes it more appetizing.

You can opt for fresh, frozen, tinned or juiced and they all count towards your daily intake.

Gut healthHow Does Diet Affect Mental Health? - yogurt & berries

Sometimes, our gut health is reflected in how we feel.

When you are stressed or anxious,  your gut slows down (constipation) or speeds up (diarrhea).

When you change your eating patterns it may take your gut a few days to adjust so give it time.

Make changes gradually.

If you are feeling stressed and believe it is affecting your gut try doing some relaxing breathing exercises.

Protein

Protein contains amino acids, which make up the chemical your brain needs to regulate your mood.

It also helps keep you full longer so is an important part of any weight management plan.

Protein can be found in a variety of foods such as lean meat, fish, eggs, legumes, soy products, nuts and seeds.

Healthy fats

Your brain needs fatty acids such as omega-3 and 6 to help keep it functioning well.

Healthy fats include oily fish, poultry, nuts (walnuts and almonds), olive and sunflower oils, seeds (sunflower and pumpkin), avocados, milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs.

Avoid trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils, this will not be good for your mood in the long-haul.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant. This means it will likely give you a quick burst of energy followed by feeling anxious, depressed and may disturb your sleep or even cause withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop.

You will find caffeine in tea, coffee, chocolate, cola and other manufactured energy drinks.

Final thoughts

How does diet affect mental health?

There is increasing evidence that a healthy, well-balanced diet affects both our physical and mental health.

Our diet affects our brain’s growth, development and mood.

Feeding it the highest amount of nutrients with the lowest calories is a significant part of any weight management plan.

When our blood sugars drop we may feel cranky, irritable and depressed.

To avoid this, eat smaller portions of a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables frequently throughout the day.

Ensure you eat a rainbow of colourful fruits and vegetables each day, as in the Mediterranean Diet, in order to get a wide variety of essential vitamins and minerals.

I am not in any way a medical practitioner, please do not rely on the information on our website as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or another healthcare provider. We only share our experiences. We are affiliates, this means that if you purchase something from a link or ad on this site we may receive a small commission. This in no way affects the price you pay,

Were you aware of the fact that diet affects our mental health?

What diet do you follow?

Leave your comments or suggestions in the comment section below.


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8 thoughts on “How Does Diet Affect Mental Health?”

  1. Hi Deborah,

    This is a bit of a weird subject for me.

    For someone who is very much into exercise and fitness, my diet can be absolutely awful.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have gone through stages of eating “perfectly” in order to supplement my training regime.

    In fact, I even been through measuring out my exact macros (proteins, carbs, and fats) on a daily basis.

    However, I’ve always been one to enjoy myself, and found this type of eating too restrictive.

    There’s nothing more that I love than enjoying a wonderful restaurant meal, or sampling a few glasses of wine or beer.

    That being said, I have definitely noticed the impact that diet has on my mood and my mental health in general.

    This is even more obvious to me as I get older.

    I am somewhat wary of what I eat, as my mother and various uncle’s were all diabetic.

    And I do love gorging myself on “sinful” foods. You know what I mean, carb-ladened treats, and I do have an especially sweet-tooth.

    However, it is becoming far more noticeable to me that my mood is very different the following day.

    I guess I feel tired and lethargic from the spike and drop in my blood sugar levels, and this effects my concentration levels, my productivity, and I may even be prone to be impatient with others.

    I’ve become far more controlled (but not to the point of obsession) in my diet once again, and it has certainly made a difference.

    I still enjoy a “treat” every now and then, but I’m starting to wonder whether it is in fact a treat, simply because of how these “pleasurable” foods make me feel afterwards.

    I’m totally with you on the “garbage in equals garbage out”.

    Thanks
    Partha

    Reply
    • Thank you for your honesty, Partha.

      The fitness guru with a poor diet is much akin to the hairdresser with the worst hair, ironic isn’t it?

      Who doesn’t enjoy a night out at a good restaurant with friends, it’s a night out without having to cook.

      I also enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or a cocktail with friends on occasion but that is just the point.
      It is on occasion, not every night or every weekend.

      Oh, it used to be when I was younger, but I like to hope I gained a little wisdom with my years. Heavy starchy or sweet foods while it tastes great always leaves me feeling heavy, tired and unable to focus.

      Making healthier lighter choices and eating smaller portions more frequently has left me with more energy and feeling clear-headed and ready to face the day.

      I still enjoy a treat or a cocktail but I control my portions.

      It also sets a great example for my children and grandchildren to follow.

      Enjoy your treats on occasion and try to eat well the majority of the time.

      Reply
      • Haha, I’m so glad it’s not just me Deborah.

        I think you’ve kinda nailed it for me, it’s a case of everything is fine, but in moderation.

        I, much the same as yourself, had a lot less control in my younger years when it came to food (and alcohol).

        That being said, my “strict” phase was in my mid-20s for a good few years until I hit my 30’s.

        I guess it’s when you have your own family, and different types of responsibilities, things tend to change.

        I also try to set a good example, but I found that I was perhaps becoming a little obsessive with diet and nutrition, and I don’t feel that’s a great example.

        So, I like to have a treat every now and then, enjoy myself, but the majority of the time I’ll eat a sensible, healthy, well-balanced diet.

        It’s seems to have rubbed off onto my kids, LOL.

        And as we’ve both said, you definitely notice the difference in terms of both physical and mental health when you eat “properly”.

        Partha

        Reply
        • You are so right Partha. Balance is the key.
          Enjoy the treats, enjoy the cocktails, but also be sure to eat mainly healthy meals and get regular exercise and enough sleep.
          Hopefully, our kids and grandkids continue to follow our example.
          If we keep the balance we should be able to live a long, healthy life.
          Take care, my friend.

          Reply
  2. Thanks for this timely post. I was recently diagnosed with pre-diabetic. I was told to cut out refined carbs and sugar. It was hard at first. But the more I ate fruits, vegetables and meat, fish, the better I felt. I no longer have brain fog. My mental acuity is at an all time high. Food does have an impact on my moods as well. I am no longer depressed. I love how your post explains the correlation between food, mood and mental health. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment, Shalisha. I am sorry to hear about your diagnosis of pre-diabetes.

      Thankfully, in many cases, following your doctor’s orders and making the necessary lifestyle changes can reverse this diagnosis and prevent developing type 2 diabetes.

      I am so grateful you shared your personal experience with dietary changes and that you no longer experience brain fog and depression. So happy to hear your cognitive abilities are improved.

      Yes, food can definitely have an effect on our mood and overall mental health.

      In these days of increased stress due to lockdowns etc taking care of our bodies and our mental health is more important than ever.

      I wish you continued success as you work towards a healthier you.

      Reply
  3. Thank you so much for all this information. You answered all the questions that I didn’t even know I had. I truly believe that what you put into your body affects your mental health. You mentioned that keeping your gut healthy is important. I wonder what are the best foods to eat that keep your gut healthy?

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment Delyana. I am grateful I was able to answer your questions even if you weren’t aware of them. It is important to me to educate people about the many benefits of healthful living. Eating a well-balanced diet is a significant part of healthful living. As far as maintaining a healthy gut flora, eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and yogurt with live cultures provides good gut bacteria and an added bonus is that it may help reduce anxiety. I wish you all the best. take care.

      Reply

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