More and more we’re learning that a healthy, nourishing diet is not only a foundational requisite for good physical health, but key for good mental health as well. Maybe it seems obvious at first—the brain is part of the body after all and needs its nourishment just like any other organ—but research on diet and mental health is still a relatively young effort. And although there is still much we must learn, in recent decades the evidence linking diet to mental health and wellness has continued to grow stronger.
Today, for most of us anyway, our diets look distinctly different from the diets of our long-ago ancestors. A typical Western diet is overstuffed with processed foods and carbohydrates, refined sugars, trans and saturated fats, cholesterol, along with heaps of sodium. Across the board, the typical Western diet is lacking in the nutrients that promote mental health, and instead is overfull with substances that can work against our health.
Keep in mind, diet is not a one size fits all. Everyone has their own individual needs. A visit to your primary care provider can help you better understand what you need in order to be the healthiest version of yourself. Read on below about some foods that are associated with the promotion of good mental health.
1. Fruits and Leafy Greens
Leafy greens, like kale and spinach, as well as fruits, are great sources of folic acids. Increased consumption of folate, besides being crucial to healthy hair, eyes, liver, nails, and the production of red blood cells, is also associated with a lower risk of depression.
2. Whole Grains
Carbohydrates are one of the body’s main energy sources. Simple carbs (common in sodas, candy, white bread, and sugary treats) make energy quickly by creating spikes in blood sugar, but that energy is short-lived, and the rapid fluctuation (i.e. sugar high and sugar crash) has been shown to worse poor moods. Instead, opt for complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, which release glucose more slowly and evenly, for a steadier source of energy. Plus whole grains are also a good source of folic acid.
3. Lean Protein
Foods rich in lean protein, like chicken, turkey, fish, eggs and beans, help to balance the body’s serotonin levels, and serotonin in turn is believed to play a role in multiple psychological and functions related to mood, sexual desire, sleep, appetite, memory, learning, social behavior, and more.
4. Fatty Fish
First, a little about omega-3 fatty acids: studies have linked omega-3s, which effects the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, with a reduction in symptoms of various mental health conditions, including schizophrenia, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and others. Fatty fish, as it happens, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids—wild, cold water fish, like salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel, etc. As it also happens, American diets, by the whole, are lacking in omega-3s. Fatty fish also contain naturally-occurring vitamin D (that’s the same one our body makes from being in the sunlight), and vitamin D deficiency is associated with higher risk of depression. So next time maybe opt for more surf and less turf!
5. Fermented Foods
There are trillions of bacteria living in your gut, and that’s actually a good thing. Good bacteria help keep your immune system healthy, protect against germs, and reduce inflammation. And inflammation, besides contributing to cardiovascular disease and other physiological issues, has also been linked to higher rates of depression. Which brings us to fermented foods, such as kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, certain pickled vegetables, tempeh, and yogurt with live cultures. These sorts of fermented foods are great sources of probiotics, which is another word for the healthy bacteria that live in your gut.
And remember: diet is only one piece of the total health and wellness equation and is not a substitute for medication. True wellness isn’t achieved by a quick tip, a fad diet, or a dietary supplement; it’s a daily practice of leading a balanced, healthy life style that works for you. So instead of imagining diet as a means to hammer the body into swimsuit shape, or as a number on the scale, or as a list of foods you shouldn’t eat, let’s imagine it as a way to honor our bodies, as an essential component of wellness, and as a list of things we should be eating more of.
Tell us what you’re making for dinner tonight! We want to know what you’re eating, and the role diet plays in your mental health and overall wellbeing. Join the conversation online using the hashtag #BeWell.