We’ve all heard the phrase, “You are what you eat,” usually in the context of losing weight. But the saying holds true for us mentally and emotionally, not just physically. Our daily diet can nourish and sustain us, or fill us up with junk that negatively affects our mood. A healthy diet is important for all areas of our life. Once we understand some basics about nutrition, and use some smart and simple strategies for meal prep and planning, we will see how it easy it can be to eat well—and how much of a difference it will make in how we feel.
Why a Healthy Diet is Important
Diet can heavily influence mood in a few significant ways. One of the most important ways, and one that has been getting more and more attention in terms of research in recent years, is the interaction between the brain and the gut. In fact, some people call the gut the body’s “second brain.”
The gut is home to a majority of our serotonin receptors, which help regulate mood, and the gut and brain communicate with each other via the vagus nerve. This communication is deeply impacted by the state of the gut’s microbiome, which is a collection of bacteria. When we feed our body good bacteria (think probiotics) and keep the microbiome in a healthy state, it can be beneficial to our emotional state of mind as well as our physical health. But when we start introducing too much bad bacteria into the body via processed foods, manufactured chemicals and hydrogenated fats, that can leave us susceptible to mood problems (as well as physical issues such as inflammatory bowel disease or diabetes).
Also, certain vitamins and minerals can help ease feelings of depression, and incorporating them into your diet can work as a kind of preventive measure. There are 12 nutrients that make up the Antidepressant Food Scale: vitamins A, C, B6 and B12, folate, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iron, magnesium, selenium, thiamine and potassium. These nutrients can do things such as regulate mood, control emotions and provide a sense of calm. Foods rich in these types of nutrients include spinach, broccoli, walnuts, chickpeas, whole grains and seafood such as mussels, oysters and salmon. In addition, people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may find some relief from adding more Vitamin D to their diet, through foods such as egg yolks and Vitamin D-fortified cereal and dairy products.
Finally, mood can also be impacted by our blood sugar, or blood glucose, levels. A steady blood sugar level throughout the day gives us energy, but foods high in refined carbs—that mid-morning doughnut or late-afternoon bag of potato chips, for example—can cause our blood sugar levels, and our energy, to spike and crash. That crash can come on hard, bringing with it mood swings, irritability and anxiety. So we know a healthy diet is important to our mood, but do we know how to make a healthy diet a reality in our daily life?
Smart Strategies Make It Easy to Eat a Healthy Diet
Here are some practical ways to make sure you are eating to support your emotional health. It can be hard to make many big changes all at once, so in order to not feel overwhelmed, start by making one or two changes—once they have become a habit, then add some more.
– Focus on whole foods.
This means your diet should consist mainly of produce (fruits and vegetables), lean proteins (poultry, tofu), legumes, seafood, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and nuts and seeds.
– Aim for your “5-a-day.”
Several countries recommend that you eat a minimum of five servings of produce each day. Generally, a serving translates to a cup of greens, a piece of fruit or a half-cup of small veggies or fruit. See how you can add a serving to each meal—it can be as simple as topping yogurt with berries, eating a side salad at lunch or roasting seasonal vegetables as part of dinner.
– All carbs aren’t bad.
Low-carb diets are a trendy fad, but you do need some carbohydrates in your diet as a source of fuel for your body to operate properly. It’s all about the kind of carbs you eat. Avoid refined carbs, such as processed foods heavy with added sugar and so-called “white foods” (pasta, white rice, foods made with white flour), and go for whole grains that are more complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice, quinoa and bulger.
– Don’t skip meals.
Rushing out the door without breakfast or working straight through lunch may be a time-saver, but it can wreak havoc on blood sugar levels. (Are you familiar with the term “hangry”?) Plus, if you skip a meal you may get too hungry, and it can be tempting to overeat when you finally do have time for a meal.
– Snack smartly.
Some people like to eat smaller meals throughout the day to maintain their blood sugar levels. If you are one of them, don’t rely on the vending machine or a co-worker’s candy dish—instead, combine protein with good carbs and healthy fats to stay full and feel nourished. Try cheese sticks with whole-grain crackers, or apple slices with a bit of almond butter.
– Dive into water.
Water is terrific and should be consumed whenever possible. That means staying away from sodas and juices (too much added sugar) and limiting coffee consumption (too much caffeine). Also, if you tend to overeat between meals, try drinking a glass of water instead—sometimes when you think you are hungry, it’s actually your body trying to tell you it’s thirsty.
– Fill up on fiber.
You’ll feel fuller longer with more fiber in your diet (and it’s terrific at regulating your digestive system). There are many whole foods that are packed with fiber, such as broccoli, peas, almonds, raspberries, pears and barley.
– Watch out for hidden sugars.
You know by now to limit consumption of cookies, pies, cakes and other sugary treats. But what about pasta sauce, breads and salad dressings? Many manufactured foods have “hidden sugars” added to them, so it’s worth reading the label—in addition to sugar, watch out for its other names, including dextrose, glucose, sucrose and fructose.
– Feed your gut with probiotics.
Probiotic-rich foods are wonderful sources of good bacteria and can help boost your microbiome. Try yogurt, kefir or kombucha.
– Plan your meals.
Don’t go grocery shopping without a plan of attack. Think about what your week will look like, and make a meal plan of what you will eat each day. Use this to create a shopping list so you buy all the ingredients you need. There are many apps to make this chore easy.
– Shop the sides of the store.
The whole foods tend to be located on a supermarket’s outer edges, so spend more time there, instead of in the middle of the store where processed foods are normally shelved. One exception: if your busy schedule prevents you from eating lots of produce before it spoils, look for frozen varieties, which still have plenty of nutrients.
– Carve out time for food prep.
Set aside a couple of hours during your weekend to get ready for the week ahead—you’ll find it much easier to eat a healthy diet when you have nutritious food prepped and ready to go. Cut vegetables to pair with hummus for a snack; roast a chicken and cut it up to include with salads; make a batch of overnight oatmeal for mornings; and put together salads in to-go containers for easy weekday lunches.
A healthy diet isn’t a cure-all for mood issues, but it is an important piece of an overall lifestyle of well-being, which can also include exercise, counseling and support group meetings. If you are grappling with mood problems and are looking for a way to live a healthier life, contact Casa Palmera today.