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Eating for your Mental Health

As a society, we’re typically told that we should eat better to keep our bodies healthy. That we should stay at a healthy weight. This prompts most of us to focus on how our bodies look. We want to look good, right? What about FEELING good? What about feeling less stressed and happier more often?


Did you know that the foods you eat can actually impact your mental health? While eating healthy for your body is important, eating healthy for your brain helps your body function better and improves your overall mood. It all starts with your mental health!


March is National Nutrition Month, so what better time to focus on your mental health AND eating healthier than right now? Your brain needs you-it’s always “on”. Even when you’re asleep! It takes care of your thoughts and movements, breathing, heartbeat and senses. This means your brain requires constant fuel to keep your body functioning. That fuel is food!


When you eat high-quality foods that contain a lot of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, it nourishes your brain and can protect it from oxidative stress (waste produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage brain cells). Low-quality foods, such as processed, can actually be harmful for the brain. For example, diets high in refined sugars increase inflammation and oxidative stress. Studies have shown a connection between a diet high in sugars and impaired brain function, as well as depression in worse cases.


Serotonin is our natural mood booster. It helps us regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods and inhibit pain. 95% of the serotonin in our bodies is actually produced in our gastrointestinal tract, which is lined with a hundred million nerve cells! This means that the inner workings of our digestive system don’t only help us to digest food, but also guide our emotions! So literally, the food that reaches our stomach has an impact on your mood and how you will feel for the rest of the day. Your gut health matters!


What can you eat to improve your mood and overall mental health? Here are a few examples:


  • Green, leafy vegetables: Leafy greens such as kale, collards, spinach and broccoli are very rich in brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin K. Research has shown that these foods may help slow cognitive decline.

  • Fatty fish: Contain ample sources of omega-3 fatty acids and healthy unsaturated fats. Omega-3 fatty acids can be very helpful in treating depression and also have a mood-stabilizing effect. Oily fish (salmon, trout, anchovies and sardines) have the highest amounts of Omega-3, but you can also find it in walnuts, flax, olive oil, fresh basil and dark, leafy greens.

  • Protein: Try to eat lean protein with every meal! It contains an amino acid that your brain uses to help regulate your mood. This can include eggs, chicken, lean ground beef or beans.

  • Walnuts: Excellent source of protein and healthy fats and can also improve memory.


Learn more about foods linked to better brainpower here.


It’s also important to consume folic acid and Vitamin D as often as possible, which are both mind and body boosting nutrients. Increased intake of folate, which can be found in green, leafy vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains, can help lower your risk of depression. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to depression as well and is thought to play a role in Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Find Vitamin D in fatty fish like tuna and salmon, as well as milk and orange juice.


More tips about eating with mental health in mind and example diets can be found here.


Don’t forget about drinking WATER! Studies have shown that mild dehydration can cause fatigue, difficulty concentrating and mood changes. Try to drink 8 glasses or water each day.


A good exercise to try is eating a “clean” diet for a week or two. Cut out all processed foods and sugar and see how you feel. Track your thoughts in a journal-how do you feel mentally and physically?


Find more information here.

A great way to easily increase vegetable or fruit consumption and get on track to eating healthier for your mental health is to grow your own garden in your backyard or a container! Join Healthy Franklin County and Wilson College on March 16th from 9am-noon for a Backyard Gardening and Beyond workshop to learn more about how you can get started with your own garden. Learn more and register HERE.


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