There are a lot of habits we can incorporate into our life to improve our mental health. Exercise, getting enough sleep, connecting with a community and meditating are just a few. But there is one that a lot of us don’t think about at first: food. Did you know that food and mood are connected? They are and we’re going to explore how healthier eating can support good mental health!
I am not a licensed therapist or mental health professional. If you are suffering and need treatment please seek the help of a professional. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Food – Good Mood or Bad Mood?
Ah, food. Our relationship with food can be so complicated. I’ve personally struggled with stress eating for as long as I can remember. Nothing like a cupcake or two, or 4, to make everything feel comfortably numb. In the direct aftermath of my divorce, I was so depressed that I would just eat my way through afternoons.
At some level, I knew I didn’t want to do it. But I also knew that feeling stuffed would distract me from other emotions. Through therapy sessions, it’s been a journey to incorporate other (healthier) ways of dealing with my feelings. Yet when the stress comes on, I just want carbs and I have to make a conscious decision to find another way to deal with the feelings. I know as I keep working on it, that muscle will get stronger over time.
Maybe you tend to go the opposite way with food. Coping with food can also look like severe calorie restriction to gain a sense of control back. It can look like skipping meals, or trying out fad diets. There are also several mental health disorders, such as body dysmorphia, that can have a profound effect on the food and mood connection. If you feel like you might have an eating disorder or other medical condition, please get professional help! You deserve to feel your best.
A Low Priority Lately
These are just a couple of the ways stress can come in and mangle up our healthy eating routines. I think that’s the reason that eating healthy has been very far off my radar lately. Do you feel like it has been for you too? We’ve been working our way through the strangest, scariest, most tumultuous year of our lifetimes. How easy it is to just say, “heck, I deserve this ____, we’re going through a lot.”
But research is beginning to tell us that if we make careful choices with our food, our mental health can actually be improved. In fact, Felice Jaka, a professor of nutritional and epidemiological psychiatry at Deakin University’s Food & Mood Centre in Australia said: “ “We have a highly consistent and extensive evidence base from around the globe linking healthier diets to reduced depression risk” (read more here). We can alter the state of our brain for the better! What!??! Instead of sabotaging my brain with too much or too few of the right nutrients, I want to give it what it needs to thrive! If we take this strategy, then we will be better equipped to handle the stress and come out stronger.
Let’s look at some of the best choices for food and mood.
1. Vitamin D
Vitamin D increases the levels of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin appears to play an important role in mood stabilization and has been called the “happy chemical.” Research has shown that high levels of serotonin equals a better mood.
Now, I always thought we just got the Vitamin D we need from the sun. Come to find out, though, that many adults are deficient in this important nutrient! Since we (should) always use sunscreen to prevent sun damage, it is less likely that we naturally will get the vitamin D we need. This means we need to make sure we get it from our diet.
Vitamin D is found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel. It is also in fortified products such as milk and orange juice. Supplements are also an option, although it’s better to try to get it from foods if you can.
2. Dark Chocolate
It may seem like a mood improving diet would be devoid of treats, but don’t fear. As long as it’s a minimum of 70% cacao, research suggests your cognitive health can be helped. In a study reported by USA Today, the chocolate was shown to increase anti-inflammatory and infection-fighting cells. I call that a win-win! Chocolate can also increase serotonin (which we talked about with Vitamin D too) and it also has lots of fiber. Powerhouse alert!
3. Leafy Greens
We know it’s important to get our greens for other reasons, but did you know it could help combat depression? These vegetables are famous for the levels of folate, a B vitamin. A study concluded that people with depression have lower folate levels and so it could be helpful to eat folate rich foods. I’d say that’s worth a try, along with a treatment plan from a therapist! It literally couldn’t hurt since greens are rich in potassium, fiber and several vitamins as well, which will contribute to overall health.
Folate is found abundantly in spinach, broccoli, artichokes, edamame, avocado, and more. Look for that dark green color and you’ll be set!
4. Vitamin C
Already one of the superstars of the vitamin world, let’s add another accomplishment to Vitamin C’s resume – stress fighter! It prevents release of the hormone cortisol into your bloodstream. You know about the “fight/flight/freeze/” response? That’s kicked off thanks to cortisol. You can read more details about it in this article. So if you can help stop that process from starting, you’ll feel much less stress overall. Yes, please!
Some foods that contain a lot of Vitamin C include strawberries, oranges, sweet peppers, broccoli, pink grapefruit juice and tomato juice. Pineapples and tomatoes aren’t too far down the list either.
5. For good food and mood avoid these!
Two parts of your diet that are not doing your mental health any favors are excess caffeine and sugar.
Sugar in particular can really be working against your mental health. It increases overall inflammation in the body, affecting all the systems. This leads to disease as well as loss of focus and energy. One study also linked increased sugar intake to increased risk for anxiety as well as to addiction indicators.
As for caffeine, one highly noticeable way it affects your mood is loss of sleep. Even if you drink it as much as 6 hours before you plan to sleep, it can still suck an hour away from your sleep time and interfere with REM cycles as reported in this study. That will make you tired and cranky the next day. In fact, avoiding excess caffeine is also one of the things to do if you have trouble falling asleep.
Related: 5 Things to Do When You Can’t Sleep
We Can Make Choices that Make a Big Difference
Taking these five considerations will help you rewrite your idea of food and mood. There are so many fun ways to incorporate mood boosting food into your meal plans, get creative with it! Even small changes, consistently made, will have an effect over time. You’ve got this!
Gosh I really need to get back on top of my diet after lockdown. Its really bad right now and probably explains my poor energy levels. Definitely food for thought
Oh man, I’m in the same boat. Make sure to check out the Healthy Meal Planning bundle that launched today. I’m super excited about it, I feel like it’s going to re-motivate me!! (aff) https://ultimatebundles.com/sale/hmpb2020-main?a_aid=5f03e674cc5b2&a_bid=cd951f31
Carletta Shannon says
Thank you so much for such an informative post. Changing what we put in our mouth can make all the difference. I have been struggling since the beginning of Covid but I do notice when I have some of the foods you mention I feel better. I have to eat more of those and forgo the sugar.
The sugar is my Achilles heel too. I think it’s harder to stay away from the less healthy choices when we are at home so much more!
Andrea Arceneaux says
This was such a helpful post. Thank you for reminding me of the connection our food choices have to our mental health and wellness.
I’m so glad you found it helpful! I learned a lot while researching and writing it. It’s fascinating how our bodies are wired.
My doctor was just telling me to up my vitamin D! I’m excited to see if I feel the difference. Thanks for sharing!
Oh I’m so curious what happens, I hope it works for you!
I do focus on eating the healthy things but my two vices are what you say not to have. Although I’ve cut back a lot on the sugar lately, I can’t give up the caffeine. Not with two toddlers!
Wow with two toddlers you definitely need the energy! I doubt you have any trouble falling asleep at any time. 😉 I remember those days and I only had 1!
When I start to feel down, I just go and make a salad and this always makes me feel better.