A lot of us may have been fortunate enough to have grown up in better living conditions than many others. Where our parents or caretakers were always concerned about whether or not we were consuming the right kind of diet. As we advanced in our years, the importance of healthy eating sort of got implanted in our minds. And if we were principled enough to implement this habit in our own lives, we tried to pass it on to the next generation – our kids. But, did we ever correlate our eating habits with our mental health? I’m pretty sure most of us would be thinking, “not really”. This is something which we all tend to neglect and which must be addressed sooner rather than later.
The Relationship Between Food & Mental Health
Research shows that food has a huge impact on our overall mental well-being as well as specific mental conditions like anxiety and depression. Think for a moment – your brain is a major organ of your body; it’s the central part of your nervous system which controls all the functions of your body. Including your blood flow, breathing, all the senses, the movements of your body, and your thoughts as well! And it doesn’t rest even for the minutest fraction of time; it’s like a machine that’s working day in and day out even while you’re sleeping. So, by analogy, it requires “fuel” on a constant basis, which is supposed to come from what you eat. It only makes sense to say that what you take in, the quality of the fuel you provide to this “machine” will directly affect the way it functions and, in turn, your mental health.
President of the International Society of Nutritional Psychiatry Research, Felice Jacka states that
“a very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health.” She adds that “a healthy diet is protective and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety.”
Makes sense, right? As mentioned earlier, if your brain is not getting the right kind of nutrition and you are not engaging in “healthy eating”, how can you expect that it keeps functioning perfectly? There will be consequences in the form of impaired brain function, emotional imbalance, and mood disorders leading to serious mental problems.
The Role of Nutritional Psychiatry
The blooming field of nutritional psychiatry has a lot to offer to the masses – you and I. Its findings can be implemented by each and every individual who cares about their health, in their daily routines. To start with, you need to become more conscious and sensitive to what you eat and how that food makes you feel. Observe your body’s reaction when you cut down certain foods such as processed foods and refined sugars from your diet, and replace them with healthy, natural options. Engage in healthy eating over a period of a few weeks and notice the results. Then, slowly bring back the previous foods, one by one, into your diet, and again see how you feel. You’ll surely feel a noticeable difference in how you feel, both physically and mentally, when you’re on engaging in healthy eating.
Having discussed how important healthy eating and a clean diet is for your mental well-being, let’s now take a look at the foods you should eat and the ones you must avoid to achieve that.
5 Foods You Should Eat
Beans are a great food choice for a healthy brain. Both beans and legumes (lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, etc.) are full of antioxidants, are loaded with fibre. They also help in keeping you fuller for longer periods of time. Beans contain thiamine as well, a vitamin that’s essential for good memory. In addition to this, both these foods help in stabilizing your blood sugar and assist in burning energy, which results in good mental health.
2. Leafy Greens
As pleasant as they look on the plate, sadly a lot of us tend to avoid actually consuming greens as much as they deserve to be consumed. From the mental health perspective, leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collard greens, etc., when consumed daily are known to improve cognitive health. I remember a psychologist I once went to for some counselling regarding a mental health issue suggested to me to improve my diet. An example she gave was to prepare a ‘colourful’ bowl of salad containing fresh vegetables daily and consume it. So, there’s no reason left to avoid piling your plate with greens and including them in your daily portions, especially if you want to improve your mental health.
Ever wondered why a walnut looks like a brain? These nuts have amazing benefits for your brain health. They are loaded with antioxidants, which help to prevent any oxidative damage to the brain and body. Even more, they promote the growth of new brain cells – neurons – consequently maintaining an overall good mental health. So, snack on a handful of these whenever you feel hungry in between meals.
4. Whole Grains
Wholegrains contain carbs which are the main energy source for the body as well as the brain. Studies have shown that the production of serotonin is assisted by an amino acid called ‘tryptophan’ which is found in huge amounts in whole grains. Serotonin is that magic hormone that helps in improving your mood, calms the mind, and contributes to sound sleeping habits as well.
5. Oily Fish
Fish is known to be ‘brain food’, and for good reasons. Oily fish like trout, salmon, and prawns contains DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, which is excellent for improving brain health for a number of reasons – it improves memory and gives an overall sense of wellness. A DHA-rich diet helps to reduce anxiety as well. Thus, feel free to enjoy a healthy meal by your favourite sushi delivery service or regularly consume fish oil supplements to have good mental health.
5 Foods You Must Avoid
1. Refined Foods
Processed foods should be a big no when it comes to maintaining your mental health. Convenience foods are generally high in calories, and higher levels of sugar and refined carbs in junk food have chances of contributing to depression. Moreover, consuming fast foods doesn’t do any good for the body as they contain a very low level of nutrients. Refined carbs, when consumed, give an instant energy boost but a sudden low follows. Therefore, try to avoid processed foods at all costs.
2. Processed Oils
Some types of oils are very unhealthy for the brain and can lead to brain impairments or aggravate the symptoms of depression. These are the saturated and refined fats; thus, you need to avoid them as much as possible. Trans fats found in many processed foods, corn and soybean oils which have a high content of omega-3 fatty acids and fats in red meat are the ones to stay away from.
Alcohol is a gateway to a lot of health problems, directly or indirectly affecting mental health, so it must be avoided too. It is known to trigger depression and anxiety and blocks the normal communication between the neurons in the brain. This immediately affects the brain functioning resulting in impulsive behaviour, slowed reflexes, poor memory, and so on.
Caffeine is present in tea, coffee, energy drinks, sodas, and chocolate. There is some difference in opinions regarding the effects of caffeine on the human body and its performance. Contextually, however, it’s best to consume caffeine in controlled amounts only. It can affect the sleep cycle, so it shouldn’t be consumed after midday.
5. Refined Grains
Lastly, refined grains, including degermed cornmeal, white flour, and white rice and are of the very low nutritional value as all the nutrients and fibre have been removed from them. They can be a source of many metabolic diseases and are of no good for the overall well-being of your body, whatsoever. So, they need to be avoided as well.