Brought to you by: Alta Bates Medical Center
From a young age we’re taught that eating well helps us look and feel our physical best. What we’re not always told is that good nutrition significantly affects our mental health as well. A healthy, well-balanced diet can help us think clearly and feel more alert. It can improve concentration and attention span.
Conversely, an inadequate diet can lead to fatigue, impaired decision-making, and can slow down reaction time. In fact, a poor diet can actually aggravate, and may even lead to, stress and depression.
Since good food can boost mental health, it’s critical that we pay attention to diet when feeling stressed. Too often the opposite happens. During busy or difficult periods, good eating habits quickly go out the door. We all know the story. A cup of coffee stands in for a complete breakfast. Fresh fruits and vegetables are replaced with high-fat, high-calorie fast food. When feeling blue, you might consume a pint of ice cream for dinner, or skip dinner altogether.
According to the American Dietetic Association, people tend to either eat too much or too little when depressed or under stress. Eat too much and you find yourself dealing with sluggishness and weight gain. Eat too little and the resulting exhaustion makes this a hard habit to break. In either case, poor diet during periods of stress and depression only makes matters worse. This cycle is a vicious one, but it can be overcome. Simple changes can have an enormous effect on both physical and mental health.
How can you be sure you’re getting well-balanced meals and snacks? First and foremost, do your homework. Learn about the health benefits of the food you eat. Experts also stress the importance of mindfulness. Since many don’t pay close attention to their eating habits, nutritionists often recommend keeping a food journal. Documenting what, where, and when you eat is a great way to gain insight into your patterns.
If you find you overeat when stressed, it may be helpful to stop what you’re doing when the urge to eat arises, and to write down your feelings. By doing this, you may discover what’s really bothering you. If you undereat, it may help to schedule five or six smaller meals instead of three large ones, to eat a wide variety of foods, or to dine with friends. Incorporating one or two new strategies can make a world of difference.
What we eat determines how we feel, and how we feel determines what we eat. Don’t underestimate the power of a healthy diet on the mind.
Sometimes, stress and depression are severe and can’t be managed alone. For some, eating disorders develop. If you find it hard to control your eating habits, whether you’re eating too much or too little, your health may be in jeopardy. If this is the case, you should consider seeking professional counseling. Asking for help is never a sign of weakness or failure, especially in situations too difficult to handle alone.
Know what foods to avoid.
Steer clear of foods high in saturated fats, like potato chips, which can impair your ability to concentrate. Pass up sugar-filled snacks, such as candy and soft drinks, which lead to ups-and-downs in energy levels. Make an effort to read nutrition labels.
Go with complex carbs.
They can be found in whole grains, fruit, and starchy vegetables. They have more nutritional value and will keep you satisfied longer than the simple carbohydrates found in sugar and candy
Learn about the mind-enhancing qualities of different foods.
For instance, protein stimulates the brain and gives energy. Calcium has been shown to benefit mood. Vitamin C helps preserve memory. Zinc improves memory, reasoning and motor skills. Magnesium helps alleviate confusion and improve concentration.
Have a healthy snack when hunger strikes.
Toss a piece of fruit into your bag every morning. Keep whole-grain cereal or instant oatmeal at work. Healthy snacks help you maintain the energy and concentration you need to manage daily demands.
Develop a healthy shopping list and stick to it.
This becomes one less thing to worry about during a stressful period. And remember: don’t shop while hungry, since you’ll be more apt to make unhealthy impulse purchases.
Think about where and when you eat. For example, many overeat while watching TV. Before you know it, a whole bag of pretzels is gone and you barely remember tasting them. Instead, find a place to sit, relax, and really notice what you’re eating. Chew slowly. Savor the taste and texture. This way, you keep track of food intake and enjoy it more.
The brain and nervous system depend on nutrition to build new proteins, cells, and tissues. In order to function effectively, the body requires a variety of carbohydrates, proteins, minerals, and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables). To get all the nutrients that improve mental functioning, nutritionists suggest eating meals and snacks that include a variety of foods.
Among the top three foods you should incorporate into a healthy mental diet are the following: