When we learn about nutrition, we’re taught that healthy eating habits can help us look and feel our physical best. What we’re not always taught is that nutrition affects our mental health, too. A well-balanced diet can help us think more clearly and feel more alert. It can also improve our concentration and attention span. On the other hand, an inadequate diet can lead to fatigue, impaired decision-making, and can slow down reaction time. A poor diet has also been associated with an increase in stress, anxiety and/or depression.
Processed foods and sugar lead to inflammation throughout the body and brain, which may contribute to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression (ADA, 2022). When we are feeling stressed or depressed, it is often processed foods we reach for in search of a quick pick-me-up. When life gets too busy, a cup of coffee stands in for a complete breakfast, or when feeling down or sad, a pint of ice cream becomes dinner.
According to the American Dietetic Association, individuals tend to either eat too much or too little when feeling symptoms of depression, anxiety, or under stress. Eat too much and you find yourself feeling sluggish or eat too little and the result is exhaustion. To boost your mental wellness, focus on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables along with food rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon (ADA, 2022). Green leafy vegetables are brain protective, in addition to nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils.
Research continues to explore the strong connection between our intestines and brain. Our guts and brain are physically linked via the vagus nerve, which is why it is important to be mindful what we are putting into our bodies. Additionally, paying attention to how you feel when you eat is one of the first steps in making sure you’re getting a well-balanced meal. For example, if you find you overeat when stressed, it would be helpful to stop what you’re doing when the urge to eat arises, and to exert those feelings elsewhere through journaling, going for a walk, listening to music, etc. Several studies also highlight connections between dehydration and depression. Aiming for an adequate amount of water intake each day can help ease tension and mood while increasing calmer feelings (ADA, 2022).
It is important to note that hydration and healthy eating habits does not cure depression and anxiety but will improve one’s overall mental wellness. If you are suffering from symptoms of depression and anxiety, you should seek assistance from your primary care provider or a mental health provider.
If you have further questions concerning your nutrition, please consult your primary care provider or local registered dietitian.