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Studies show that diets rich in fruits and veggies, seafood and whole grains, with modest amounts of lean meats and dairy, are linked to better mental health.
Many of the same foods that are good for your physical well-being can help you reduce stress and anxiety.
Kailey Leonard, an oncology dietitian with Providence, shares the science behind the food-mental health connection and ways you can modify your diet for a happier outlook.
When the challenges of life get you down, do you find yourself reaching for a bowl of chocolate ice cream or grabbing a cheeseburger and fries from your favorite fast-food joint? If so, you’ve probably noticed that although “stress eating” feels good in the moment, the positive feelings tend to pass not long after taking your last bite.
Turns out that the same high-fat, sugar-loaded foods we crave when stressed or sad can make us feel worse.
The good news is that new research shows nutritious food can play a role in improving our mood, reducing stress and even lowering our risk of dementia.
We talked to Kailey Leonard, MPH, RDN, CSO, a board-certified oncology dietitian with Providence, about the science behind this food-mental health connection and how people can make it work for them.
When did researchers start looking at the link between food and mental health?
Kailey: Scientists have been exploring this topic for a while, but the research has taken off in the last few years. The timing is perfect because the COVID-19 pandemic has been mentally and emotionally challenging for many of us.
People refer to this emerging field of study as “nutrition psychiatry.”
What types of food have a positive effect on our mental health?
Kailey: A diet that is good for your mental well-being features vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, and contains only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. It doesn’t include foods that are heavily processed or have a lot of added sugar and white flour.
A diet that is good for your mental well-being features vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, and contains only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy.
The Mediterranean diet is an excellent example of this approach to eating. A recent study showed that people who follow the Mediterranean diet have a significantly lower risk of depression than those who eat a “standard American diet,” or SAD. SAD mainly consists of processed foods, red meat, high-fat dairy products, high-sugar foods and pre-packaged foods, which increase the risk of chronic illness.
What is the science behind this mood-food connection?
Kailey: From a psychological standpoint, eating nutrition-rich foods makes us feel better about ourselves. When we eat well, we don’t have the guilt that comes after overindulging in unhealthy food. We are more alert, not sluggish or tired. All of this contributes to a better mood and lower stress levels.
The foods you eat contribute to your mental health at a deeper, biophysical level.
The foods you eat contribute to your mental health at a deeper, biophysical level, too. For example:
- Fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants prevent damage to cells throughout your body (including your brain).
- Many unprocessed foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchee, are fermented and act as natural probiotics, or good bacteria. Probiotics promote good gut health, which can boost your production of the hormone serotonin. Serotonin is well-known for regulating appetite and mood.
- Highly processed foods with a lot of added sugar and white flour increase inflammation throughout the body, which can be a risk factor for depression.
What are some simple things people can do to improve their diet for better mental health?
Kailey: I always encourage people to start small, especially if they’ve been following the standard American diet for a while. Your taste buds need to adjust to healthy eating, which can take time. If you are currently eating two servings of vegetables a day, increase that to three a day. After a week or two, check in with yourself. If you are feeling good, add one more serving a day.
It’s important to enjoy your food, so be sure to experiment when you are preparing it. You can try:
- Roasting your vegetables, which can bring out the natural sweetness
- Making smoothies with fresh fruit and plain yogurt
- Cooking and pureeing your vegetables and adding them to soup
- Making a sandwich with whole-grain bread instead of white bread
- Marinating fish or chicken and grilling it, rather than baking it in the oven
- Sprinkling herbs and spices on your entree to enhance the flavor
Be sure to eat fruits and veggies in season if you can – peaches always taste better in June, and tomatoes usually taste terrible during cold winter months!
Can you recommend any resources?
Kailey: The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides MyPlate, a great guide to following a well-balanced diet. Another excellent resource is the American Institute for Cancer Research’s New American Plate which helps people incorporate more plant-based food into their diet. And I’m a big fan of the Seasonal Food Guide, which allows you to search by location for the produce available during each month of the year.
People who incorporate healthy eating habits are often amazed by how much better they feel after just a week or two!
There are so many resources available today for people who want to make healthy changes to their diet. People who incorporate healthy eating habits are often amazed by how much better they feel after just a week or two!
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.
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