"Eat well if you want to become stronger." Perhaps this is one line we have all heard from our parents when we were growing up. But what they meant by "becoming stronger" was becoming physically stronger. Yes, healthy eating habits make us physically strong. But what our parents often fail to tell us is that eating well also makes us mentally and emotionally stronger. So, in this article, we will look into the role of nutrition in maintaining optimal mental wellbeing.
Nutrition and mental health
Mental health concerns around the world are on the rise. Among all, anxiety and depression are the most common mental health issues, and depression could be one of the top health concerns by 2030, putting an annual loss to the global economy of $925 billion. To find solutions to this, researchers have been doing different studies, and nutritional psychiatry is an emerging area of study that focuses on the role of nutrition in maintaining optimal mental wellbeing.
Different studies indicate that diet has a strong relation with mental wellbeing. For example, a study found that a healthy diet consisting of more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, olive oil, low-fat dairy, lean meat, and antioxidants had a lower risk of depression as compared to the Western diet.
A Western diet pattern of simple sugar, butter, potato, processed red meat, and high-fat dairy products was found to have a significant risk of mental health issues.
Similar results were noticed in kids and teenagers as well. A study found that a high intake of fish, nuts, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products reduced the risk of depression during the adolescent period.
In addition to healthy diets, scientists have been researching dietary supplements and its effect on mental wellbeing. Certain studies have revealed that low amounts of nutrients like folate, iron, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin D, B6, and B12 are directly linked with low mood, anxiety, and depression.
But how does food affect mental health?
While mental health is a complex topic and depends on not one, many factors like nutrition, genetics, environment, and exposure to trauma, etc. might have a strong influence on mental health. The body produces a chemical called serotonin, a crucial factor regulating our sleep, appetite, and mood. A large portion of the serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal(GI) tract, which has several neurons and nerve cells. So it can be said that the digestive tract not only helps in food digestion but also has an impact on our emotional wellbeing.
Additionally, the intestinal microbiome highly influences the functioning of these intestinal neurons, along with the production of serotonin. These gut bacteria keep the toxin level at bay by creating a strong barrier against the bad bacteria, reducing inflammations, and helping in better absorption of nutrients from the food, which then activate the neural pathways that travel directly from the gut to the brain.
As a Harvard study mentions, a comparative study between a traditional Mediterranean diet and a Japanese diet with a Western diet shows a 25-30% lower risk of depression for those who ate the traditional diet.
What you can do to optimize your mental wellbeing
Nutrition has an important role to play in having better mental health. Start by paying attention to how different foods make you feel, not just when you're eating or right after but the next day.
- Try eating a traditional diet for a couple of weeks. This means you need to cut down on all processed and sugary food. Record how you feel not just emotionally but also physically.
- Record your energy level.
- Now, slowly start reintroducing the other food after 2-3 weeks. Notice how you feel. Is it making you feel better or keeping your moods and energy low?
When you go on a clean diet, you will notice how it elevates your mood and overall energy and makes you feel sluggish and low on energy once you bring the sugary and processed food back into your diet.
An ideal diet for optimal mental wellbeing
Complex carbohydrates like starchy vegetables and brown rice, quinoa, millet, and sweet potatoes are great options that will keep you full and satisfied for a longer time compared to simple carbohydrates like sugary candy.
Lean proteins like chicken, soybeans, nuts, seeds, fish, and eggs help you think and react promptly. Finally, a dose of healthy fats in the form of nuts and seeds is needed for the brain and the nervous system to function properly.
Some more healthy eating tips
Develop a mindful shopping list and stick to it when it comes to refilling your pantry.
- Keep a healthy snack ready to curb hunger pangs. A handful of nuts, hard-boiled eggs, or yogurts are always better than processed food like chips.
- Include brain-friendly food in your diet. These include probiotics, omega-3 fatty acid-rich food that improves moods and cognitive abilities, and magnesium-rich food that can help with anxiety and depression.
- Add a mix of coconut and olive oil to include healthy fats in your diet.
- Develop a healthy eating habit. Be mindful of your portions.
- Avoid eating in front of a TV or watching your phone or else you will end up overeating. Instead, sit in a designated space, relax, and enjoy your meal — savor the taste and texture of the food.
The takeaway message
- Several scientific studies have suggested that nutrition is strongly linked with mental wellbeing.
- Many researchers have found that "clean" and healthy eating habits can help improve mental health issues like anxiety and depression by a considerable amount, while binging on processed food may increase the risk of mental health issues.
- Maintaining healthy eating habits not only helps you stay fit but uplifts your mood, too.
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