This is a no-brainer: healthy food is the way to go. It can reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or cancer. But how does diet influence mental health?
Simple healthy changes can boost cognitive functions, reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders. A healthy diet will not only keep your body fit but your brain as well.
It’s important to know what’s good for your mental health, what to avoid, and why.
What foods are good for your brain?
1. Fatty fish:
Our brain is made up largely of fat. However, our body cannot produce its own omega 3’s. We have to rely on our diet to meet our daily needs. The western diet tends to be low on omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA and high in trans and saturated fats, which have been shown to negatively affect the brain. To reverse this, you can add omega-3 rich foods in your diet. These foods, such as cold water fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring), seaweed, flaxseed, chia seeds or nuts have been shown to reduce symptoms of schizophrenia, depression, and ADHD.
2. Whole grains:
Our brain needs carbs to function, but not all kind of carbs will have the same effect. Simple carbohydrates such as sugar and other refined carbs create spikes in blood sugar which exacerbate low mood. It has been shown to have effects on the brain similar to drug abuse.
In contrast, complex carbs (whole wheat for example) release glucose slowly, which provides a steady source of fuel for the brain.
3. Lean protein:
Low levels of serotonin is associated with depression. Lean protein sources such as fish, turkey, chicken, eggs and beans help keep serotonin levels balanced.
4. Fruits and vegetables:
We won’t say it enough: we need to eat more fiber. A study found that increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables in our diet can improve psychological well-being in just 2 weeks!
5. Dark, leafy greens:
Depression has been linked to inflammation in the brain. Leafy greens like kale or spinach fight inflammation and boost the immune system.
6. Antioxidant-rich foods:
Antioxidants may work to combat neuroinflammation, which is linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. By fighting inflammation in the brain, antioxidants have also been found to improve the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression.
Diets linked to better mental health
Although I am not too much of a diet enthusiast myself, two diets in particular have been shown to have the most positive effects on mental health, depression and anxiety: the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes more healthy fats, and the DASH diet, which focuses on reducing sugar.
The Mediterranean diet focuses on adding fresh fruits and vegetables, protein-rich legumes, and fatty fish and olive oil (high in omega-3s). What I love most about this diet is that wine is allowed. It’s even recommended! (in moderation of course). This diet’s been linked to better heart health as well.
The DASH diet on the other hand focuses on taking sugar out of your diet, mainly.
But why are we declaring war on sugar when it comes to mental health? A 2017 study analyzed the sugar intake of over 23,000 people. They found that men who ate the most sugar — 67 or more grams a day, which is just under two cans of Coke — were 23 percent more likely to develop depression or anxiety over five years compared to those in the bottom third who logged less than 40 grams a day (10 teaspoons).
Now bare in mind, quitting sugar is not easy. It’s like a drug for our brain. But it’s worth the short-term pain, so hang in there!
Anika Knüppel, researcher and PhD student at University College London, explains: “Diet is a great way of active self-care and self-love — a key in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is often used to treat anxiety and depression. I believe seeing oneself as worthy of self-care and therefore worthy of being fed with nutritious food is a great step.”
It’s easy to blame our busy modern lifestyles when it comes to diet. Processed foods are convenient and affordable. However, simple changes can be made. Increasing our intake of fruit and vegetables, reducing processed foods, drinking water or tea instead of sugary drinks and cooking from scratch are the first steps to be healthy in your body as well as in your head.