Eating well for mental health

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Published on 07/08/2021 | Author Dr. Siddharth Chowdhury

Eating less processed foods can improve mental and emotional health.

We are taught from a young age that good food helps us look and feel good. What we’re not always told is that good nutrition also has a significant impact on our mental health. Eating a healthy, balanced diet can improve our ability to think more clearly and feel more alert. It also helps with focus and attention span.

On the other hand, inadequate nutrition can lead to fatigue, impaired decision-making and slow reaction times. In fact, poor diet can worsen and even cause stress and depression.

Plate of white fish

One of the most serious health problems is society’s reliance on processed foods. These foods are high in flour and sugar and train the brain to crave them instead of nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables.

Many of the processed foods we consume are highly addictive and stimulate the dopamine centers of our brain, which are associated with enjoyment and reward. To stop cravings for unhealthy foods, you need to stop eating them first. When you eliminate added sugars and refined carbohydrates from your diet, you actually begin to change the physiology of your brain.

Stress and depression

Sugar and processed foods can cause inflammation throughout the body and brain, and potentially contribute to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. When we’re stressed or depressed, we often resort to processed foods for a quick pick-me-up. In hectic or difficult times, a cup of coffee replaces a full breakfast, and fresh fruits and vegetables replace high-fat, high-calorie fast food. If you’re feeling down, a pint of ice cream turns into dinner (or skip dinner altogether).

According to the American Dietetic Association, people tend to either overeat or overeat when they are depressed or stressed. When you overeat, you are faced with sluggishness and weight gain. Eating too little and the resulting exhaustion makes it difficult to break this habit. In any case, during times of stress and depression, poor nutrition only makes matters worse. This cycle is a vicious circle, but it can be overcome.

To strengthen your mental health, focus on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables along with foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon. Dark green leafy vegetables in particular protect the brain. Nuts, seeds, and legumes like beans and lentils are also excellent brain foods.

A Healthy Gut

Researchers continue to prove the old adage that you are what you eat, most recently by exploring the strong connection between our gut and our brain. Our intestines and brain are physically connected by the vagus nerve, and the two are able to send messages to each other. While the gut is able to influence emotional behavior in the brain, the brain can also change the types of bacteria that live in the gut.

According to the American Psychological Association, gut bacteria produce a number of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate physiological and mental processes, including mood. It is believed that 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, a mood stabilizer, is produced by intestinal bacteria. Stress is believed to suppress beneficial gut bacteria.

Mindful eating

Paying attention to how you feel and what you are eating is one of the first steps to making sure you are eating well-balanced meals and snacks. Since many of us do not pay close attention to our eating habits, nutritionists recommend keeping a food diary. Documenting what, where, and when you eat is a great way to gain insight into your patterns.

If you find that you are overeating when you are under stress, it may be helpful to stop what you are doing when the urge to eat occurs and write down your feelings. That way, you can find out what is really bothering you. If you are undereating, it can help to plan five or six smaller meals instead of three large ones.

Learn more about mindful and emotional eating.

Sometimes stress and depression are severe and cannot be managed on their own. Some develop eating disorders. If you find it difficult to control your eating habits, whether you eat too much or too little, your health can be at risk. In this case, you should seek professional advice. Asking for help is never a sign of weakness or failure, especially in situations that are too difficult to deal with on your own.

Brain food

Your brain and nervous system depend on nutrition to build new proteins, cells, and tissues. Your body needs a wide variety of carbohydrates, proteins, and minerals to function effectively. To get all of the nutrients that improve mental performance, nutritionists recommend eating meals and snacks that contain a variety of foods rather than eating the same meals every day.

Here are the top three foods to include in a healthy mental diet:

1. Complex carbohydrates – like brown rice and starchy vegetables can give you energy. Quinoa, millet, beets and sweet potatoes have a higher nutritional value and keep you feeling full longer than the simple carbohydrates in sugar and sweets.

2. Lean proteins – also provide energy that enables your body to think and react quickly. Good sources of protein include chicken, meat, fish, eggs, soybeans, nuts, and seeds.

3rd Fatty acids – are critical to the proper functioning of your brain and nervous system. They can be found in fish, meat, eggs, nuts, and flax seeds.

Tips for healthy eating

1. Avoid processed snacks like potato chips, which can affect your ability to concentrate. Avoid sugary snacks like sweets and soft drinks, which lead to ups and downs in energy levels.

2. Consume lots of healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado. This will support your brain function.

3rd Have a healthy snack when you feel hungry, such as fruit, nuts, hard-boiled eggs, baked sweet potatoes, or edamame. This gives you more energy than packaged products.

4th Develop and stick to a healthy shopping list.

5. Do not shop hungry as you are more prone to unhealthy impulse purchases.

6th Think about where and when to eat. Avoid eating in front of the TV, it can be distracting and lead to overeating. Instead, find a place to sit, relax, and really watch what you are eating. Chew slowly. Enjoy the taste and texture.

Dr. Siddharth Chowdhury is a consulting neuropsychiatrist at VIMHANS, New Delhi and tells all of his patients that good food creates a good mood.

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