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Understanding the Link Between Nutrition and Mental Health

Silvia Carli

11/03/2020
By Silvia Carli

Have you ever wondered if the food you eat could affect what and how you think? What about your mood? Research shows that nutrition and mental health are directly linked. Our brain and body are in close sync, and we should be treating our health from a holistic perspective.

In an interesting study published in early 2020, lead author, Professor Suzanne Dickson, noted “We have found that there is increasing evidence of a link between a poor diet and the worsening of mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.” However, this still leaves the question of what we should eat to promote physical, mental, and emotional health.

Focus on a Whole Food Diet

A whole-food diet is an excellent way to help ensure that you’re giving your body (and brain) the nutrients necessary for health and wellness. While it might sound exotic, this diet isn’t really all that complicated. “Whole food” is exactly what it sounds like—food that’s been minimally processed.

What’s A Whole Food Anyway? -Mic the Vegan

Instead of fries, tots, or chips, eat potatoes. Instead of frozen dinners, make your own. In most cases, the whole food path focuses on getting more vegetables in the diet, along with fruits, nuts, and seeds, over meat, although it doesn’t necessarily mean going completely vegetarian. It’s more of a flexitarian way of eating.

Following a whole food diet does more than just ensure that you’re getting good nutrition. It also helps you avoid potential health threats. Processed foods are packed with preservatives, colorings, and other chemical additives. Those do your body (and brain!) no favors.

Focus on Lean Proteins

You might not be ready to go vegetarian with a true whole foods diet. You might not even be ready for a flexitarian diet yet. But you don’t have to give up meat to improve brain health.

However, you do need to focus on the right sources of protein. Lean protein foods like cod, shrimp, and even venison can give you the protein that you need, the umami flavor you’re craving, and the ability to build a stronger body and mind.

Choose Antioxidant-Rich Foods

Antioxidants are powerful nutrients that help the body’s cells fight back against free radicals, highly reactive molecules that often promote wrinkles and aging. They’re most famous for their role in reducing the signs of aging on the face, but they do so much more! In the body, antioxidants help fight cancer and rejuvenate aging cells everywhere (including organs, ligaments, tendons, etc.). In short, they help preserve your very DNA.

Selection of antioxidant food in a box.
Antioxidants Help Fight Cancer And Rejuvenate Aging Cells Everywhere (Image Source: Shutterstock)

What foods pack in the most antioxidants, though? Here’s a partial list:

  • Dark chocolate
  • Blueberries
  • Pecans
  • Artichokes
  • Raspberries
  • Kale
  • Beans

Consider the Right Food Supplement

While nutritionists recommend that we get the bulk of our nutrition from real foods (and whole foods, not ultra-processed options), that doesn’t mean that the right food supplement has nothing to offer us. For instance, consider Alpha BRAIN by Onnit—this nootropic supplement delivers powerful ingredients like L-theanine and L-tyrosine to stimulate and improve brain health and wellness.

Of course, there are numerous other supplements out there that can help. Something as simple as B12 can help improve memory retention and clarity of thought. An increased intake of vitamin D (including from direct sunlight exposure) has been linked to reduced anxiety and depression.

Get Lots of Prebiotic Fiber

It’s easy to get sidetracked in the whole talk about diet and mental health. However, we cannot afford to overlook the gut and brain connection! Our gut biota (the microbes that live in our gut) is responsible for so much of our mental and emotional health, along with how we feel physically.

Variety of prebiotic foods for gut health.
Prebiotic Fiber Is One Of The Most Critical Considerations For Supporting Good Gut Health (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Prebiotic fiber is one of the most critical considerations for supporting good gut health and helps to create the right environment for beneficial bacteria to thrive. Of course, that probably leaves you wondering how much fiber per day you should be getting. The answer is: It varies. Ideally, you’ll get about twenty-five to thirty grams of fiber per day (from food, not a food supplement).

Don’t Neglect Exercise

Finally, don’t neglect the role of exercise for mental health. It’s a powerful force for good in the body and the brain. Not only does working out stimulate muscle growth and burn calories, but it releases feel-good endorphins that elevate your mood. Exercise can reduce anxiety, depression, and other negative mental states and support a happier, healthier mental and emotional outlook.

Couple practicing yoga stretching workout at home.
Almost Any Type Of Physical Activity Can Release Endorphins, Build Muscle Tissue, And Burn Calories (Image Source: Shutterstock)

What types of exercise should you look into, though? The good news is that almost any type of physical activity can release endorphins, build muscle tissue, and burn calories. You don’t need to become a cross-country runner to benefit. Just going for a walk can be incredibly beneficial.

You might also want to consider combining different forms of exercise in your self-care routine. For instance, yoga brings together physical fitness with mental exercises to help care for your body and your mind. Mindful walking and jogging can also help improve your mental and emotional health while giving you the physical activity you need.

Take a Holistic View

We tend to break ourselves down into various components. We focus on working out our glutes or our biceps and triceps, for instance. That’s often the wrong path to take. The body is a single organism—a holistic system.

You can’t cut it into pieces and then expect the whole thing to thrive. You must treat yourself as a single, indivisible being.

What you eat has a direct, measurable impact on how you think and even how you feel. Taking a holistic view of yourself helps show how the various systems are interconnected and will ensure that you’re able to build a stronger mind and body.

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