If you've ever experienced the guilt and discomfort that comes after eating a box of cookies, a 1/2 pound of fudge, an entire large pizza, or [fill in your vice food here], then you have experienced first-hand how food can impact your mood.
On the flip side, maybe you've been diligent with the nutrition resolution you made on January 1 and have started noticing improvements in your physical and mental well-being. In both cases it's clear that diet impacts our emotional and mental health, and not just our physical health.
It’s not surprising then that scientists have found a link between diet and depression. One study found that individuals whose diets consisted of large amounts of highly processed foods had a higher risk of developing depression than those whose diets consisted of mostly of nutrient dense, minimally processed foods. Keep in mind that correlation does not prove causation, so it could be that those who are depressed simply tend to consume less nutritious foods.
What can you do to ensure your diet is not what’s keeping you down?
A well-balanced diet that focuses on some mood-boosting foods is best.
- Choose complex carbohydrates like whole grains, beans, legumes, and whole fruits. The brain prefers to run on glucose, which is a building block of carbohydrates. Some examples of good choices are: brown rice, oatmeal, lentils, dried peas, and kidney beans.
- Focus on fruits and vegetables. Research has shown that higher intakes of produce are correlated with feeling calmer, happier, and having improved mental wellbeing. Aim for 5-7 servings every day.
- Include food sources of omega 3 fatty acids in your diet. These essential fats have a long list of health benefits including beneficial influence on brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. Favorite choices: salmon, tuna, sardines, and flax, hemp, and chia seeds.
- Be aware of vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency, which is extremely common during the winter months in Utah, has been linked to increased rates of depression. Salmon, tuna, and fortified foods such as milk and cereal are all good sources. However, a supplement during the winter may also be wise. Be sure to look for vitamin D3 on the supplement facts panel.
- Increase your intake of probiotic foods. Probiotics are bacteria that provide health benefits to the consumer. Up to 95% of serotonin in the body is produced in the gut and studies show that increased probiotic intake may boost your mood. Top picks: plain yogurt with live and active cultures, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Mild dehydration has been shown to cause anger, fatigue, and mood swings. The LiVe Well dietitians love sparkling water, low-sodium soups and broths, and unsweetened coffee and tea. Bonus! Coffee and tea consumption has been linked with lower rates of depression and suicide.
- Skip the trans-fat. You’ve probably already heard that trans-fats aren’t good for your physical health and the same holds true for mental health. In fact, just 1.5 grams per day are associated with increased rates of depression. Tip: Avoid highly processed convenience foods which often contain the main dietary culprit of trans-fats, partially hydrogenated oil.
Please note that while a healthy diet is a great way to support mental health, it doesn't take the place of regular visits with your healthcare provider.