After eating a particularly unhealthy meal, have you ever noticed that you don’t feel too great? Maybe you suffer from a headache; perhaps your digestion becomes sluggish; or, maybe you suffer from a bout of anxiety or depression for several days. If this sounds familiar, read on to discover more about the link between nutrition (or what you eat) and mental well-being.
As Amen Clinics reports, emerging evidence suggests that nutritional treatment may help prevent or treat a variety of disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, autism, addiction, and eating disorders. After decades of anecdotal evidence, the scientific community is finally beginning to accept the fact that what we eat definitely plays a role in brain and mental health.
Evidence of Nutritional Psychiatry
5 years ago, a group of 18 scientists discovered that “the emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a crucial factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that diet as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.”
“…diet is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.” —The Lancet Psychiatry
Two years later, a 12-week study, known as the “SMILES trial”, focused on the impact of dietary support compared with social support in 67 people who suffered from moderate to severe depression and ate unhealthy diets. After the 12 weeks, 32 percent of participants receiving dietary support achieved remission, compared with only 8% in the social support group.
I personally learned the value of “making food my medicine” at the age of 15 (holy smokes – 2009!), when I suffered from chronic acne, depression, eating disorders, and anxiety. After ditching refined sugar, wheat, processed foods, and cutting down on meat, my afflictions dramatically improved. Hence, this is why I am so passionate about teaching others about the concept of making food one’s medicine.
10 Principles of Nutritional Psychiatry
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If you feel encouraged to make food an integral part of your journey toward wellness, keep the following rules in mind:
1. Cultivate a love for the foods that love you back
When you first start eating healthier, you may think: “Gosh, this tastes like cardboard.” But this is typically a symptom of eating highly processed foods which “shock” the taste buds. As you include more healthy, plant-based (alllll the greens) foods into your diet, you will begin to develop a love for the foods that love you back.
This rule also means to consider the ingredients in your favorite foods. If they contain ingredients your grandma couldn’t pronounce or wouldn’t include in her cooking (Red #40, Yellow #5, preservatives), say “goodbye” to the pro-inflammatory vegetable oils, sugar, and MSG that can worsen ADD/ADHD symptoms and cause “mind-storms.”
2. Focus on highest quality calories, versus calorie counting
If your body is missing out on essential nutrients (which is common in populations that depend on highly refined and low-nutrient food), you’ll continue to crave foods in order to obtain adequate stores of nutrients. This is why you can feel starving even after eating a high-calorie McDonald’s meal. It’s sugar and fat, and your body is literally malnourished.
Instead of focusing on calorie counting, focus on the quality of the foods you consume. The more greens, nuts, seeds, grass-fed meat and seafood, vegetables, fruit, and healthy oils (avocado, coconut oil, olive oil) you consume, the more satiated your body will become over time. At first, you may feel as if you need to gorge yourself. My honest advice is to listen to these signals and help your body know that it isn’t in starvation mode anymore. After it balances out, your hunger should, as well.
By taking steps to maintain a healthy weight, you will help reduce your risk for depression and Alzheimer’s disease (evidence suggests both are worsened by obesity).
3. Eat and Cook with High-Quality Fat
Believe it or not, 60 percent of the solid weight of your brain is fat. For this reason, low-fat diets are not good for mental health, specifically when one is struggling with anxiety or depression. Healthy fat sources, such as avocado, wild-caught fish, coconut (oil, butter, shredded, fresh), nuts, and seeds will provide the omega-3 fatty acids your body needs to lubricate joints and nourish the brain.
4. Pick ‘Smart’ Carbohydrates
Just like fat, carbs are not the enemy. However, the quality of carbohydrates does matter, which is why this next tip is to pick colorful, low-glycemic, and high-fiber carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, acorn squash, brown rice, and activated legumes, when grocery shopping. These nourishing foods break down slowly and, as a result, will help keep blood sugar levels (and your mood) stable.
5. Eat High-Quality Protein at Every Meal
It is vital to eat easy-to-digest protein-rich foods to balance blood sugar, which will help keep your mood balanced. Protein-rich foods also help to curb cravings because your body actually feels satiated.
6. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Your brain is 80 percent water. Even being mildly dehydrated can negatively impact your mood, causing you to feel more anxious, tense, depressed, or angry. Skip high-calorie and dehydrating drinks, like coffee and soda. Stick to water, tea, and broth beverages.
7. Make Use of Herbs and Spices
Nature provides us an array of tools to improve physical and mental well-being. For example, St. John’s Wort is an effective aid against depression. Yarrow is also soothing for the nerves, and lavender can help provide a sense of calm in the midst of chaos.
8. Eat as Clean as Possible
In the era of “orthorexia,” I want to clarify that this isn’t a suggestion to aspire to eat perfectly all of the time (which itself isn’t entirely healthy, due to rigidity). Rather, simply consider the source of your food and strive to eliminate all sweeteners, colors, preservatives, and foods in plastic containers.
9. Omit Brain Health/Mental Health Allergens
If you suffer from any brain health/mental health or physical issue, try eliminating sugar, MSG, gluten, corn, soy, and dairy for one month. See if your symptoms improve.
10. Use Intermittent Fasting to Supercharge Your Brain
11. BONUS Tip: Exercise Regularly
Exercising improves oxygenation to your brain, improves overall wellness, and releases feel-good endorphins. Take care of yourself physically and you WILL reap the benefits mentally and emotionally.