The Impact Your Diet Has on Your Mental Health

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Landis
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You are what you eat. You hear that often as a way to stress the importance of good nutrition. We don’t really think about it, but it is true that the food we eat becomes part of our bodies. So when we eye that bag of potato chips, thinking about it turning into an increase in our waistline or another chin can make us reconsider purchasing it.

Eating too many “bad” foods like potato chips or cookies and other high fat and sugar, low nutrient foods can give us unhealthy bodies. Obesity is the root of many physical health problems, so controlling our food intake is essential.

But did you know that unhealthy eating also affects our mental health? In addition to gaining weight or increasing your cholesterol levels, you could be compromising your mental health by eating too many of the wrong kinds of food or avoiding the healthier choices.

Unsplash/Jannis Brandt

Hearty Hippocampi

Australian researchers found a connection between the quality of one’s diet and common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. Physical evidence was found by examining the hippocampus, a part of the brain which helps develop learning and memory and is important to mental health.

While taking many factors into account, such as socioeconomic status and family history of mental illness, researchers concluded diet affected the size of the hippocampus. Adults who ate a generally healthy diet typically had larger hippocampi, and those who had a poor diet had smaller hippocampi.

Researchers concluded that there was a direct link between diet and mental health. It’s not exact, but it’s further evidence that our diet is important to our overall health and mental well-being.

Necessary Nutrients

Your brain needs nutrients to be healthy. The only way they will get there is by you eating healthy. Your brain is a very complex organ, but it won’t tell you exactly what it needs. You have to educate yourself (using your brain) to find out.

You often hear how bad fat is for you, but it is essential to your diet and to your brain. Your brain is two-thirds fat and needs an ongoing supply of healthy fatty acids to maintain high-speed transmission of nerve impulses.

A diet rich in these “good” fats will also protect you from developing depression or degenerative brain diseases such Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

Vitamins C and E and other antioxidants protect the brain’s delicate structures from potential damage caused by free radicals in our diet and environment.

B-complex vitamins battle inflammation in the brain, which can be a byproduct of protein metabolism. This process keeps the blood flowing in your brain and reduces the risk of damage, which could affect coordination and reaction time.

Your brain needs protein to help control blood sugar levels and to maintain the chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine, which affect our mood and energy levels. Think of them as nutrient superheroes battling the Grim Mood Reaper — and your only hope for survival.

Food for Thought

So what foods should we choose to properly feed our brains and keep us happy? Generally speaking, you should eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in meat and dairy products. That said, you can eat too much of anything. Almonds are touted as a super healthy food item, but they are high in calories and could contribute to obesity. Moderation is key.

Two well-known healthy diets are the Mediterranean and the Japanese diets. Both contain nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fish. Red meat is consumed only in small portions and isn’t a major part of either diet.

These diets provide the essential vitamins and minerals your brain needs. There are no processed foods, and sugars come from natural sources. You could model your diet after either of these or make up your own. Just be sure to you choose foods that are rich in brain-protecting antioxidants.

Choose fish over meat, eat fresh fruits and vegetables when you can and avoid processed foods. Here are a few other tasty items you can include in your diet:

• Blueberries
• Cranberries
• Spinach
• Cilantro
• Walnuts
• Pecans
• Artichokes
• Red wine
• Chocolate

Yes, chocolate can be part of a brain-healthy diet! Just be sure to choose dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate or other overly processed chocolate in candy. The higher the cocoa content, the higher the number of antioxidants you will consume.

Healthy Habits

Diet is important to brain health. When we eat processed foods high in sugar, fat and carbohydrates, we feel sluggish and tired. A trip to a fast food restaurant might make us happy at first. But in the long run, it just adds to our lethargy and our waistline. And have you ever felt hungry shortly after eating an unhealthy “combo meal”? That’s not a good sign.

You can eat all the right foods and still have poor mental health. Depression and other mental disorders can affect us no matter our diet, so be sure to get medical attention if a change in diet doesn’t help you. Plus, eating is just one thing. We need physical activity, socialization and mental stimulation for our brains to be healthy. Be sure you don’t overlook these needs while focusing on your diet.

But your diet is something only you can control, so it’s important you make informed decisions before putting anything in your mouth. You will be whatever you eat, and your brain will respond accordingly.

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