Most of the information we read and decisions we make about what we eat focuses on creating a strong and healthy body.
But have you ever stopped to consider how the food we eat and fluids we drink can affect our mental health?
Balanced nutrition is a cornerstone of childhood development, with numerous studies affirming the need for optimal nutritional intake for cognitive performance, memory, learning and academic success. Malnourished children can also struggle with attention and focus, or may even experience behavioural problems.
But it is easy to lose sight of this important benefit linked to healthful eating once we deem this important stage in our development over.
READ MORE | Manage Stress And Improve Mental Health With These Supplements
Food for thought
The truth is that our brain requires various nutrients and premium fuel to function optimally as we age, just like our other organs and our muscles.
According to a report by the Mental Health Foundation, the brain needs “complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water to remain healthy.”
And the burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry continues to find other correlations between what we eat, how we feel, and how we behave and function in everyday life. We know that providing the brain with adequate amounts of macro- and micronutrients supports healthy brain function, structure and activity.
Specifically, various vitamins and minerals help the body convert complex carbohydrates into glucose – the brain’s main energy source – and converts fatty acids into healthy brain cells, and amino acids into neurotransmitters.
Antioxidant vitamins also help protect the brain from free radical damage and oxidative stress, which can negatively impact mood and mental health.
Similarly, a large body of research confirms that a diet high in essential fatty acids and low in saturated fats may help to slow the progression of memory loss and cognitive decline by maintaining proper neuronal structure and function. Polyunsaturated fats, especially omega-3s, also help to combat inflammation.
READ MORE | Study Finds Regular, Structured Exercise Sufficient To Lower Mental Illness Risk
The food-mood connection
Conversely, nutrient deficiencies and imbalances can impact your mental health in various ways.
For instance, numerous studies show links between Western diets and higher risks of depression and anxiety due to a lack of important nutrients such as folate, magnesium, iron, zinc, and vitamins B6 and B12, and vitamin D.
Specifically, B vitamins play a critical role in producing various brain chemicals, and low vitamin B12 levels are linked with higher rates of depression and dementia.
And nutrient imbalances, like unbalanced omega-3 to omega-6 ratios – a common occurrence today due to the abundance of omega-6 essential fatty acids in processed foods – is associated with mental health problems such as depression and concentration and memory problems.
And multiple studies correlate diets high in refined sugars with impaired brain function and more severe symptoms linked to mood disorders such as depression because excess sugar intakes impair insulin regulation and promote inflammation and oxidative stress.
Foods to avoid for improved mental health include:
- Simple carbohydrates and refined sugars
- Manufactured and trans fat
- Processed meats
- Foods that contain additives and preservatives
READ MORE | Nootropics Give You A Mental Edge
Feed your brain
The best sources of the macronutrients, vitamins and minerals your brain needs include natural whole foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, and lean meats.
Diets like the Mediterranean diet that are rich in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, natural oils, and fish and seafood, with only modest amounts of meat and dairy, tend to offer better brain benefits compared to the traditional Western diet, with its predominance of processed and refined grains and simple carbohydrates and sugar, and meat.
Eat these foods for better brain health, cognitive function and enhanced mood:
- Fish, predominantly cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel
- Whole grains including quinoa, rye, buckwheat and oats
- Nuts and seeds
- Vegetables like leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, legumes, beans and lentils
- Limited red meat, cheese and dairy
Adding nutritional support from quality supplements can also help to meet your brain’s daily nutritional requirements. Beneficial additions to every balanced whole-food diet include:
- Omega-3s essential fatty acids
- B-complex vitamins
- Vitamin D
- Essential amino acids
However, it is important to remember that your diet is only one aspect of mental health. And mental conditions are often complex and multi-faceted.
Anyone who experiences depression or anxiety symptoms or has general concerns about their mental well-being should always seek help from a qualified healthcare provider to develop a personalised treatment plan.