Feeling blue? Turns out the saying “you are what you eat” is actually true when it comes to the relationship with the food you consume and how you feel.
Nearly 1 in 5 adults, or around 46.6 million people, in the United States live with some level of mental illness. A mental illness can be defined as a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling, behavior or mood. Good news, just as diet can help to keep most bodily functions in top shape, like cardiac health, research shows that improving your diet can also boost your mood by increasing energy levels, maintaining cognitive ability (or brain function), and helping to ease anxiety and depression.
Finding the right fuel
Imagine your brain as a car and food as gasoline. Like a car, it needs fuel to move from one place to the next. The fuel for our brain comes from the food we nourish our bodies with. Our brain functions best when we eat an overall nutritious and balanced diet. The brain performs at its best when it has the correct fuel to carry out our everyday tasks, right from going about your day to falling asleep at night. The food we consume gives our body energy. The nutrients we choose to put into our body can affect our brain chemistry, which has a major impact on our mood. If we provide our bodies with processed food that has too much sugar and sodium we are left feeling sluggish and unmotivated. In turn, if we provide our body with a well-rounded diet, we are able to do the things we love because we have an abundance of energy and good thoughts. For example, research that explores the right diet to improve mental health has shown that a diet high in omega 3’s reduces inflammation, risk factors for heart disease and depression. We can provide our body with the right fuel by adding fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and fiber into our everyday diet.
Eat the Rainbow
We know that 1 in every 10 adults in the United States meets the federal guidelines for fruit and vegetable intake. It is recommended that adults consume 1 to 2 cups of fruits per day, and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables per day depending on your sex, age, weight and physical activity. Fruits and vegetables contain key nutrients to help keep our body and mind happy. One nutrient, folate, is found to increase levels of serotonin, which is known as our happy hormone, and is a crucial factor in the regulation of our mood. Folate can be found in the dark greens we eat such as spinach, kale, okra, broccoli and asparagus. Beta-carotene and lycopene are antioxidants that can be found by adding red-, orange-, and yellow-colored foods into our diet. These antioxidants reduce damage to our cells and help fight inflammation in our body.
As many of you have probably heard growing up, eating the rainbow allows you to incorporate a variety of different fruits and vegetables to your daily meals, making for the best diet to improve mental health. Fruits and vegetables contain an abundance of vital nutrients that are needed to boost our mood and keep us feeling happy. We should aim to have ½ of our plate be fruits and vegetables. Some different ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet is by switching up your preparation methods (baking, steaming, airfrying), adding them into sauces, or to simply use them as a ‘chip’ for your next dip.
Fat, one of the three macronutrients, is needed in order to provide adequate energy, absorb vitamins, and fight fatigue for our body. There are many different types of fats, so it is important to clarify which ones we should be consuming regularly. The not so healthy fats, such as trans fat and saturated fats, are responsible for the bad reputation that fats often get. These fats are to blame for clogged arteries and the increase in risk factors for certain diseases such as coronary heart disease and type II diabetes. Saturated and trans fats that are found in highly processed or fried foods are best to be consumed in moderation.
The most optimal fats to add to your diet are the healthy fats known as unsaturated fats. These types of fats can be found in olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocados and fatty fish such as salmon. Vitamin E, omega 3’s, tryptophan, and magnesium can all be found in foods high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. All of these help to produce serotonin, reduce free radical damage, and decrease inflammation in your body. By including more healthy fats in your diet, you can improve your mood, boost your energy and well-being, and even reduce your risk factors for certain diseases.
Fiber is the indigestible part of food that helps to feed the good bacteria in our gut. There are two types of fiber we can get through our diet – soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber slows digestion and attracts water. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to your stool and speeds up digestion throughout the body. The American Heart Association recommends 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day, unfortunately most Americans only meet half of that requirement.
Research has shown that a high fiber diet is associated with reducing the symptoms of depression. New ways to treat mental health issues are now being researched through our “gut-brain” connection. Studies have found that the microbiota, where the good bacteria live, produces serotonin, regulates stress hormones, and decreases inflammatory responses when we nourish it well by adding fiber to the diet. Next time you are feeling blue, make a plate of food and make sure to include color, healthy fats, and fiber to get into a better mood.
If you want to learn more about how diet can improve mental health and what changes you can make to start feeling better, talk to a Health Loft dietitian in person in Chicago, IL or virtually via our telehealth platform across the United States by calling us at (312) 374-5399 or by scheduling an appointment online. For more tips and fun facts to also check out our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages for more articles on nutrition, physical therapy, and exercise!
Written by Frankie Severyns Edited by Alexander Franz Reviewed by Morgan Murdock, RD
- Chrysohoo, C., Panagiotakos, D. B., Pitsavo, C., Das, U. N., & Stefanadis, C. (2004, July 7). Adherence to the Mediterranean diet attenuates inflammation and coagulation process in healthy adults: The ATTICA Study. Retrieved August 20, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15234425/
- Folate. (2016, April 8). Retrieved August 19, 2020, from https://www.mhanational.org/folate
- Galland L. (2014). The gut microbiome and the brain. Journal of medicinal food, 17(12), 1261–1272. https://doi.org/10.1089/jmf.2014.7000
- MD, E. (2020, March 31). Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Retrieved August 19, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626
- Mental Health Conditions. (2020). Retrieved August 19, 2020, from https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-conditions
- Mental illness. National Institute of Mental Health website. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml. Updated February 2019. Accessed August 19, 2020.
- Only 1 in 10 Adults Get Enough Fruits or Vegetables. (2017, November 16). Retrieved August 20, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2017/p1116-fruit-vegetable-consumption.html
- Opie, R., O’Neil, A., Jacka, F. N., Pizzinga, J., & Itsiopoulos, C. (2017, April 19). A modified Mediterranean dietary intervention for adults with major depression:Dietary protocol and feasibility data from the SMILES trial. Retrieved August 19, 2020, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1028415X.2017.1312841
- University of Eastern Finland. (2013, September 16). Diet is associated with risk of depression. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 20, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130916103530.htm
- Phillips, M. M. (2020, August 4). Soluble vs. insoluble fiber: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 20, 2020, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002136.htm
- Xu, H., Li, S., Song, X., Li, Z., & Zhang, D. (2018, March 21). Exploration of the association between dietary fiber intake and depressive symptoms in adults. Retrieved August 20, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0899900718301060