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Healthy Eating and Mental Health: What Is The Connection?
Enjoying healthy food is the key to physical and emotional well-being. Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and pulses (legumes) such as beans and lentils should be a significant part of the standard diet. These foods are rich in micronutrients and antioxidants such as vitamins C, E, B, potassium, magnesium, and healthy lipids. Fresh fruits and vegetables in various colors provide all nutrients essential to human health and wellness.
An Overall Healthy Diet Helps
- Boost brain health
- Improves stress management
- Regulate thoughts and feelings
- Optimize our overall health
The best foods are whole, fresh, and unprocessed
Choosing various foods from all food groups is a healthy way to eat. Focusing on a clean diet can be beneficial as it promotes a healthy gut and reduces mood fluctuations. Simply put, clean eating is choosing the least processed possible, fresh food without loads of calories, salt, sugar, and saturated fat. Generally, eating earlier in the day improves energy balance, alertness, mental performance, glycaemic control, weight regulation, and sleep satisfaction. Eating together encourages conversation, improves mental health, and allows one to relax and laugh, promoting a sense of belonging. Studies show that healthy foods can help deal with mental health issues and alleviate some behavioral issues.
It is essential to skip artificial colors, preservatives, sweeteners, and other manufactured ingredients. Nutrition facts labels help us make healthy food choices by providing information about the number of calories and nutrition in the product, thus allowing us to compare similar foods.
What is healthy eating and how does it affect our mental well-being?
A healthy eating style keeps us healthy and helps protect the brain from damage. A balanced diet promotes a balanced gut, which can directly influence mental health and well-being. An article published in December 2019 in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology suggested that healthy eating can have a considerable influence on our mood and mental wellness.
Why is eating healthy important?
New healthy eating research confirms that a balanced diet is associated with greater well-being and happiness. A panel survey over 12,000 adults was investigating how eating healthy affects your body and mind. Consuming high-quality foods affects the function and structure of the brain by positively affecting neurotransmitter production. Scientific evidence shows that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants may improve brain health. Saturated fat from fried foods, high-fat meats, and full-fat dairy products should be replaced with heart-healthy fats such as nuts, olive oil, canola oil, avocados, and seeds.
Diets high in refined sugars can lead to memory and cognitive deficiencies. Increasing evidence shows that sugary diets are linked to symptoms of depression and anxiety and impaired brain function. Sugary foods and beverages trick the brain into feeling hungry when sugar levels go down, and there is a surge in hormones such as glucagon and ghrelin.
How healthy foods can help deal with mental health issues?
Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants fuel the brain and protect it from oxidative stress. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, and norepinephrine were released after consuming high calorie products and still promote pleasure and happiness while reducing depression and anxiety. These feel-good hormones require nutritional-derived precursors, as well as vitamins and minerals.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the structure and function of the brain’s neurons. Their neuroprotective properties of fatty acids help brain cells work better. They promote efficient neuron communication in the brain, reducing the risk of brain disorders. The best food source of omega-3 includes fatty fish (salmon, trout, sardines, and tuna), chia seeds, flax seeds, Soy milk, and green leafy vegetables (brussels sprouts, Kale, broccoli, spinach, and cauliflower).
Apart from nutritional value, aliments stand for pleasure. Evolutionally, a human being had to consume foods rich in calories to maintain satiety till the next feeding. Consequently, foods dense in calories topped the food pyramid while low-calorie foods were considered useless for survival. However, this mechanism is not exactly a way to create healthy eating habits, nor is it beneficial for a healthy BMI.
Brain-boosting Healthy Foods
Nutrient-rich foods improve concentration and productivity. Brain food snacks are a vital source of nutrients that can directly impact mood or anxiety levels. Almonds and walnuts are rich in essential brain nutrients. Fish is the perfect mood booster. There is much evidence that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can affect brain chemistry and help ward off depression. Blueberries are rich in vitamins C and E, antioxidants, and flavonoids. Their brain-boosting power increases blood flow to crucial areas of the brain and decreases the level of oxidative stress. Antioxidants in bananas, apples, lettuce, grapefruit, citrus fruits, kiwifruit, cucumber, and dark leafy greens like spinach help promotes psychological well-being.
Unsurprisingly, the brain uses more than 20% of the body’s energy. Carbohydrates supply the brain’s preferred energy source in the form of glucose. Processed carbs increase the risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies when consumed long-term as they often contain high amounts of added sugars, fat, and preservatives. They typically spike blood sugar and can have various consequences, such as diabetes, weight gain, poor metabolic health, hormone dysregulation, fatigue, brain fog, and more. Unrefined carbs in the form of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and legumes make a far better choice than refined carbs as they stabilize energy levels, build stronger muscles, improve glycaemic control, and fuel our nervous system.
Vitamin Deficiency and Mental Health
Researchers report that food and nutrition affect our health both physically and mentally. Vitamins play a crucial role in producing brain chemicals that affect mood and enhance energy in the body. The B vitamins, including thiamine, folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and riboflavin, support mental wellness and helps protect the brain from stress. Our body uses vitamin B to convert blood glucose or sugar into energy. The brain can lack energy due to the low levels of vitamin B, contributing to many mental health issues. Mental health experts identify B12 deficiencies as a root cause of neurological, cognitive, and psychiatric issues. Low vitamin B12 has been found in studies of depressive patients who experienced deep depression, irreversible nerve damage, and memory loss. Vitamin B deficiency is associated with poor energy levels, irritability or depression, brain fog, poor concentration, sluggishness, fatigue, and low mood.
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for brain development. Research supports that a deficiency of this vitamin is associated with both minor and major depression. Vitamin D helps reduce negative emotions and improve quality of life. Some people with vitamin D deficiency can experience an altered mental health status, low energy, and lack of enthusiasm.
Children and Healthy Eating
A growing child needs all the core nutrients for healthy growth. Children nowadays prefer fast food over traditional home-cooked food due to peer pressure and misleading advertisements. High sugar, salt, and fat levels in junk food and fast-food meals contribute to the risk of obesity, heart diseases, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and other health problems. Fast foods typically contain harmful ingredients, including processed meats, high-calorie sugar content, high fructose corn syrup, excessive oil, and artificial colors and flavors. Pre-packaged and processed foods can induce compulsive eating behavior by triggering the brain’s dopamine reward system.
“Research highlights that junk food can trigger behavior symptoms in children.”
Nutritionists emphasize that children need a healthy balanced diet to support their growth and development. A 2020 study found that ultra-processed foods can affect a child’s cognitive and physical development. It was concluded that frequent fast-food and junk food consumption might lead to reduced academic performance. According to another study, children who consume junk foods are more likely to be overweight by adulthood. Moreover, they can have aggression, anxiety, trouble concentrating, hyperactivity, and feelings of depression. The latest research has confirmed that balanced, healthy meals improve mental health in children. Without balanced nutrition, children could become prone to health issues in the long run. Here are some tips for parents on how teach children about healthy eating:
- Enjoy family meals to foster healthy new habits and tastes.
- Be a role model for healthy eating.
- Limit children’s exposure to fast food restaurants.
- Encourage regular exercise and physical activity.
It has now become well-established that parental choices significantly influence eating behavior in children. Hence, it is vital to encourage healthy eating habits at home. Checking a child’s iron and zinc blood levels is crucial to identify deficiencies of these vital micronutrients. Iron deficiency has been widely associated with impaired cognitive and motor function. Many foods contain a good amount of iron and zinc, including iron-fortified cereal, lean beef and lamb, baked beans, boiled eggs, and green vegetables.
There is no escaping that a balanced and healthy diet is required to avoid nutritional deficiencies. Nutritionists have established links between the nutrient value of food and its psychological benefits. A higher intake of fruits and vegetables accounts for better mental health, mood regulation, and fewer symptoms of depression. Therefore, adding brain foods to our diet is crucial to lead a healthy life and preventing cognitive decline as we age.
As an accredited Nutrition and Health Coach, Afifa has been coaching and counseling clients for many years with scientific and holistic approaches. She is extremely passionate about lifestyle modification from a very young age. Afifa has transformed her life and many others with her expertise in nutritional interventions, diet consultation, weight management, and Sports Nutrition