We know that nutrition is important for our physical health, but did you know it is just as important for our mental well-being too? A diet high in sugar and processed foods leads to low gut bacteria and inflammation, leading to depleted serotonin; and studies have found this leads to increased risk of anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, a healthy, whole-foods diet has been found to reduce depression. Support your mental health with the following dietary tips.
Avoid processed foods and sugar
This is probably the biggest thing you can do for your mental health, and your general health. Heavily processed and sugary foods are devoid of nutrients. This means we use up more nutrients than we consume when we eat them, leading to a net loss. These nutrients are required for keeping our brain, and therefore our mental wellbeing, in tact. Sugary foods also feed the “bad bacteria” in our gut, which crowds out the good bacteria, which we need for good mental health. And it disrupts our blood sugar levels, which can leave us feeling unstable.
As well as cutting down on sweet treats, look out for sugar hidden in sauces, baked beans, tomato ketchup and even tinned soup.
Opt for healthy carbs
Simple, refined carbohydrates like white bread and pasta turn to glucose quicker than other foods so lead to the some of the same issues as sugary foods, as discussed above. But not all carbs are equal. Wholegrains like brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat and oats release sugar more slowly, keeping blood sugar more stable. These foods are also rich in essential vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, vitamin B6 and zinc, which are the precursors to serotonin.
Eat your veg, and lots of it!
The benefits of vegetables cannot be understated. They are a source of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants, all of which are beneficial to our brain health. They also feed our good bacteria in our gut, aiding mental wellbeing. Aim for 8 portions of vegetables daily and 1-2 pieces of fresh fruit.
Opt for healthy fats
Fats get a very unfair bad press. Like carbs, some fats are harmful while others are beneficial. Our brains are made up of 60% fat and “good” fats are essential to support our mental health. Avoid harmful saturated fats found in animal produce and sweet treats and instead opt for beneficial fats like omega-3, found in oily fish (like salmon, mackerel, sardines) and in seeds (like flax, chia or pumpkin). When cooking, opt for olive oil or coconut oil and try flax seed oil drizzled onto salads for an extra omega-3 boost. Watch out for foods labelled “low fat” – they are marketed as “healthy” but often full of sugar!
Eat regular protein
Protein helps to slow the release of glucose into the blood – avoiding blood sugar instabilities as discussed above. Ensure you have a good source of protein with every meal. Good protein sources include good quality organic lean meat, oily or white fish, organic eggs, beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and seeds, hummus, tahini. Protein foods also contain tryptophan which is the precursor of serotonin.
Add fermented foods to your diet
Give your good bacteria an extra boost with fermented foods or drinks. For example sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, kombucha or good quality cultured yoghurt. I keep a jar of miso in the fridge at all times and use it in soups and stews in place of stock. Watch out for some of the probiotic yoghurt drinks in the supermarket: they are marketed as a health aid but often they contain high amounts of sugar which feeds the “bad bacteria” in the gut, cancelling out the good stuff!
Avoid Chemical Stressors
These may disrupt hormones and mental well-being. Try to opt for organic where possible. This is another reason to avoid heavily processed foods, which may contain additives.
Coffee or tea?
Although recent studies have found there may be some benefit to drinking coffee to our health, it contains high levels of caffeine which stimulates cortisol – our stress hormone. Try to drink it in moderation especially if you are someone sensitive to caffeine.
Green tea is a brilliant alternative. It contains much less caffeine and it is a source of theanine: an amino acid which has been found to stimulate the same brain waves as meditation – aiding relaxation. If you think you don’t like the taste please check out one of my earlier blog post here for some ideas on how to make it palatable.
Herbal teas can also be a calming option. Traditionally we think of chamomile, but if that’s not your thing there are all sorts of options. I particularly like the Pukka brand.
Watch your alcohol intake
It can be tempting to turn to alcohol when we are feeling down but this is sure to make things worse. Our bodies have to work hard to process alcohol and we lose nutrients through doing this – valuable nutrients that are needed for our brain health amongst other things. If you feel you want to turn to alcohol at the end of a stressful day, could you try doing a meditation exercise, go for a walk or do some yoga first? You may find you no longer want a drink once you have relaxed. You could also try alternatives like sparkling water with lemon or lime. I like to serve it in a wine glass to make it feel special! And of course, don’t forget to get professional help if you think you need it.
As well as making changes to your diet to improve your mental wellbeing, are there changes you could make to your lifestyle? Some things that people find helpful in managing their mental health include exercise, getting into nature, yoga, meditation and simply taking a break when you need it. Check out the Headspace app for easy meditation exercises and Tribe Yoga for online yoga videos at all levels.
You may also like to check out my ideas for a mental health tool kit – a list of ideas you can keep up your sleeve to help you manage your mind on a bad day.
Get help if you need it
We all have down days but if you are concerned about your mental health then please tell your doctor.
And as always contact me if you would like tailor made support with your own diet.