We’re taught from a young age that eating healthy helps us look and feel our best. But what we’re not always told is how important nutrition is to our mental health. A well-balanced diet can help us think clearly, increase our focus, and help us feel more alert. It can also improve concentration and attention span.
Conversely, a diet that’s loaded with processed foods can lead to fatigue, impaired decision-making, and slower reaction time. In fact, a poor diet can actually aggravate stress and depression. Here are five eating habits you should follow instead.
1. Stop eating junk food.
One of the biggest problems plaguing society is our reliance on processed foods. People who consume chips and cookies on a regular basis are more likely to experience “everyday mental lapses” in the form of low productivity and forgetfulness. If that wasn’t bad already, eating junk food has also been found to increase your risk of depression, anxiety, and stress.
Why you’re always craving junk food
A lot of the processed foods we eat are highly addictive because their ingredients stimulate the dopamine centers in our brain, which are associated with pleasure and reward. In other words, the more junk food you eat, the more you crave them.
Processed foods tend to be high in refined carbs and sugar. These ingredients are highly inflammatory and can spread throughout your body and brain. This can contribute to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.
Eating a poor diet during periods of stress and depression will only make things worse. But quitting junk food isn’t easy. Luckily, there is something you can swap your chips for that’s also convenient to prepare and tasty to eat – fruits. And this brings us to our next eating habit you should develop…
2. Snack on the rainbow!
There is no shortage of studies that support the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. One peer-reviewed study published the journal Nutrients in 2020 found that eating fresh produce can benefit mental health by improving sleep quality, mood, and energy levels, while lowering stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms.
Fruits and veggies deliver nutrients like vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber and water. These things are needed by the body to support brain function. For example, vitamin C, which is found in many fruits, provides key protection to our organs, including the brain.
In addition, one study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that eating fruit on a regular basis decreased levels of depression and anxiety regardless of the portion size or type of fruit. So next time you’re feeling down in the dumps, try snacking on fruits!
The feel good hormone
Fruits and vegetables can also help with the synthesis of serotonin, which regulates mood. That’s because your gut produces about 95 percent of the serotonin in your body. So eating foods that promote bacteria that improve gut-brain communications and cognitive function will lead to a better mood.
3. Eat more fermented foods.
Within your gut exists a communication network called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum.
Through this enteric nervous system, your gut and brain are constantly in communication with each other. Studies show that an unhealthy gastrointestinal tract can alter the gut-brain relationship and negatively impact your mood, cognition, and mental health.
Your gut-brain connection relies on a healthy gut microbiome. This means that you need to eat plenty of foods that promote the good bacteria in your gut. Eating fermented foods that are high in fiber, probiotics, and phytonutrients has been linked with improved cognition including memory, mood, and executive function.
Try eating up to 30 different kinds of fresh produce each week or try adding kimchi or sauerkraut to your diet. This will help build a diverse gut microbiome, which will improve digestion, strengthen your immune system and ultimately better your mental well-being.
4. Don’t skip the fish!
Along with eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, eating fish regularly can boost mental health and reduce the risk of dementia. The essential omega-3 fatty acids found in fish have been proven to decrease the risk of depression and prevent age-related mental and cognitive decline.
It’s recommended to consume one or two three-ounce servings of fatty fish per week. You can eat fish like salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. Getting more omega-3 fatty acids into your diet will reduce your risk of depression and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as heart disease and stroke.
5. Practice mindful eating
Very few people do this, but paying attention to how you feel after a meal, is a great way to make sure that you’re eating a well-balanced diet. Taking the time to document what, where and when you eat is a great way to gain insight into your eating patterns.
If you find you overeat junk food whenever you’re stressed, it would be better to stop what you’re doing when the urge to eat arises, and to write down your thoughts. Doing this may not seem like much but it can help you discover what’s really bothering you instead of trying to cover it up with junk food.
Sometimes, stress and depression are severe and can’t be managed through your diet alone. If you find it hard to control your eating habits, you should seek professional counseling. You don’t have to face every difficult situation alone. Just remember, asking for help is never a sign of weakness or failure.