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The Impact of Diet on Mental Health

A lousy diet can lead to a lousy mood. By making healthy choices regarding what we eat, we can positively impact our emotions and reduce the risk for developing a mental health disorder.

In the winter months in particular, it's not uncommon to reach for food for comfort. With the shorter days and less daylight, not to mention subzero temperatures, winter can seem dreary and never-ending. Turning to sugar filled goodness or salty snacks may make you feel better in the moment, but in the long-run, it can negatively impact your mood and overall mental health.


So, if you’re feeling the winter blahs, research suggests the answer to a better mood and more energy may be on your dinner plate and in your snack drawer. While food shouldn't be considered "good" or "bad," your choices matter more than you may realize.


The Gut and the Brain


The field of nutritional psychology focuses on understanding how what we consume can directly impact how we feel. It all starts in the gastrointestinal system, or the gut, which is home to trillions of microbes that have various functions in our bodies. Microbes in our gut produce neurotransmitters that send chemical messages to our brains, like serotonin or dopamine, which regulate our mood and emotions and play a role in keeping us calm, energized, and focused. Foods high in fat and sugar have been found to derail these neurotransmitters.


Research shows that when we consume a healthy diet, i.e. less sugar or junk food and more nutrient-dense food, we are promoting a healthy gut, and therefore are more likely to be in a better mood. In fact, population studies have shown that people who consume a nutrient-dense diet have reported “less depression, and greater levels of happiness and mental wellbeing.”


Negative Impact of Sugar


While we may not want to admit it, most of us are aware that sugar isn’t the best for us and overall, isn’t good for our health. Eating a lot of sugar can lead to health complications such as increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and even mental health disorders.


Most of the problematic sugar in our diets is found in processed foods - like candy, soda, and baked goods - and digestible carbohydrates that are refined and high in sugar. The issue is, once we eat a little sugar, we want more. Sugar can be addicting, which in hand can lead to depression and other mood disorders.


In fact, research shows that sugar may be almost as addicting as cocaine and other street drugs. Eating sugar releases dopamine and opioids in our bodies, which creates a pleasurable high that we are inclined to repeat. The more sugar we consume, the more we crave it.


Eat This, Not That


Research suggests that eating a well balanced diet consisting of nutrient-dense foods can be extremely beneficial to your overall health and mental well-being. Studies have found that eating more fruits and vegetables can lead to “less worry, lower tension, and greater life satisfaction.” Replacing your after dinner cookie with sweet berries or apple slices, or eating carrot sticks with your sandwich instead of chips, are simple swaps that can help you stick to a healthy diet.


If you’re someone who struggles with anxiety, it may be a good idea to limit your intake of alcohol and caffeine in addition to your sugar intake. While they may make you feel better in the moment, these foods have actually been found to intensify anxiety symptoms. Not sure how to make the switch? Try replacing your morning coffee with a relaxing herbal tea. Instead of a glass of wine or mixed drink, sip on a refreshing seltzer water or all natural fruit juice.


The bottom line is building your diet around healthy foods, fruit and vegetables, and unsaturated fats is best for your physical and mental health.


How to Implement Changes in Your Diet


Easier said than done, right? Let’s face it- breaking a habit is HARD. If you’re looking to make a change, it's best to start small. Quitting sugar cold turkey almost never works, and may lead to binge eating or other unhealthy habits. Instead, try implementing one extra serving of veggies a day, or swapping one snack with a piece of fruit. Starting with one change at a time can help not make it feel so daunting.


Eating mindfully is also important. Focus on what you are eating and how it makes you feel. If you suspect that a certain food or food group may be responsible for negative side effects, try cutting it out and seeing if it makes a difference. Then, slowly reincorporate the food back into your diet and see if there is an impact. Eating mindfully is a powerful step towards eating for your mental health.


The most important thing to remember? Go easy on yourself! Nothing happens overnight, and it's okay if you slip up every now and then. If you take it one day at a time, you can get there.

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