Anyone who ever drowned their sorrows in a pint of ice cream or reveled in a celebratory feast with old friends knows that the food we eat can be intimately connected to the way we feel. Eating a favorite food can lift your spirits as well as nourish your body. On the other hand, food itself can become a locus of anxiety and stress. The pressure to eat only the “good” foods and avoid the “bad” ones can turn food into the enemy. Eating becomes a minefield of carb counting and dietary restrictions, until the basic concept of nourishment is all twisted out of shape. And when it comes to serious mental health issues, food is no substitute for medicine. There’s no one magic food that can “cure” depression or stave off an anxiety attack.
Our emotional relationship with food is individual, and complex. But there is plenty of evidence that on a nutritional level, we can help maintain our overall mental wellbeing through the food choices we make day-to-day. Try these simple guidelines to eat for a more focused mind and stable mood.
This one’s the golden rule: make sure you eat regularly to keep blood sugar levels steady. Even if you’re not the kind of person who gets super ‘hangry’ when you haven’t eaten enough, hunger is still a big drain on your physical and emotional energy. It impairs your ability to concentrate, and can even make you more inclined to take unnecessary risks. Eating regular meals and snacks that contain both fiber-rich carbs and a source of protein will provide the kind of steady, slow-release energy that helps to keep your emotions on a more even keel.
Although your brain represents only 2% of your body weight, it uses an incredible 20% of the calories you burn each day. Developing brains require even more fuel: we know that malnourished children grow up to have less grey matter than kids who get enough to eat. To take good care of your brain, eat plenty of beneficial fats, especially Omega-3s. Good sources include flax and chia seeds, walnuts, and oily fish like mackerel, salmon and sardines. Omega-3 supplements are usually made from fish oils, but you can also find vegan-friendly versions made from algae oil.
Sometimes, all that’s standing between you and happiness is a big glass of water! It turns out that even mild dehydration is enough to cause concentration problems, low moods, headaches and fatigue. You often hear the advice to drink 8 glasses of water a day, but in fact there’s no hard-and-fast scientific recommendation: needs vary with size, age, and level of physical activity. But you’ll avoid dehydration if you make water your main choice of beverage, drink when you’re thirsty, and check your urine - when you’re well hydrated, it will be a pale straw color.
Yes, we go on about this all the time - but it’s really important! Eating a spectrum of colorful fruits and vegetables is the number one way to ensure your body gets all the nutrients you need to feel great. The colors of fruits and vegetables are clues about the beneficial phytochemicals inside: red advertises the presence of lycopene, orange = beta-carotene, green = chlorophyll, purple = anthocyanins, and so on. So instead of reading labels on supplement bottles, just look at your shopping cart. A colorful plate of fruits and veggies is a verified mood-booster.
Maybe you’ve heard of serotonin? It’s a neurotransmitter that’s essential for the regulation of mood, memory, appetite, digestion, sleep, and sexual desire and function. Serotonin is sometimes called the “feelgood chemical” because low levels are linked to mood disorders like depression and anxiety. But get this: a cool 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced by bacteria in your GI tract - which is a great reason to attend to your gut health. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains supplies the prebiotic fiber your microbiome needs to thrive.