Most of us choose our food choices based on how hungry we are, what we are craving, what will help us feel our best and reach our training and running goals, and, if we are following a diet or strict eating pattern, what fits into our meal plans and which healthy options will benefit our physiques.
For the most part, we choose the food we eat for physical reasons. Even “comfort foods,” which are those foods we crave when we feel nostalgic or in need of some emotional comfort, while certainly having a mental component to them, are also eaten because they provide us a level of physical comfort. But have we ever stopped to consider how our food choices might be affecting us on a mental level?
Food & How it Affects Mental Health
Does food have a significant impact on our mental health? While more research and evidence is needed, the studies conducted so far point to yes.
Regularly consuming high sugar, high fat foods like most snacks labeled “junk food,” as well as fast food and convenience, prepackaged meals may be linked to higher rates of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), especially in teens and children. Similarly, diets rich in omega 3 fatty acids, lean proteins from meat and fish, and vegetables have been linked to helping reduce the symptoms of ADHD.
However, it is not just ADHD patients that diets high in sugar seem to have a negative effect on. Like other organs of our bodies, the brain functions best when it is fueled well with plenty of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. After all, when a fetus is in utero, still forming its vital organs, the brain is largely formed by using fats consumed by the mother to make brain tissue. (Remember, fats – especially omega 3 fatty acids – are a good thing!) And just as there are nutrients that the brain needs a lot of in order to perform at its highest functioning power, there are also foods that can impair its functioning. High amounts of sugar consumption have proven detrimental to the brain, as it worsens the regulation of insulin and promotes inflammation.
When we eat foods, our bodies absorb the nutrients and the “waste” that is left over are known as free radicals. Free radicals have been linked to causing carcinogenic cells to form, but fortunately, can be kept at bay with a diet rich in antioxidants. Unfortunately, foods like processed sugar, as commonly found in fast food and junk food diets, leave quite a bit of leftover waste, or free radicals. The result is impaired organ functioning, including the brain, and has been linked to depression.
You have probably heard of serotonin, the chemical in your brain that helps regulate your mood. People clinically diagnosed with depression often have lowered serotonin levels. Serotonin is largely produced in the gastrointestinal tract in your stomach, and is thus highly affected by the gut bacteria that lines your gastrointestinal tract.
The good gut bacteria, like that found in probiotics, help keep free radicals low and increase serotonin production, which ultimately can benefit people suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or other mental health issues. You can increase your probiotic intake simply by adding in foods like yogurt and Greek yogurt, kombucha, raw or unpasteurized cheese, apple cider vinegar, gherkin pickles, miso and natto.
What You Can Do
Eating regularly and often can equal sustained blood sugar levels which help you to avoid crashes in mood, and which often then lead to overeating and reaching for foods that are convenient and easy (basically, fast food, junk food, and foods that we have advised against here!) So another key component of mood and food to eat at regular intervals throughout the day. We want to be sure, though, to emphasize that there is such thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to focusing on health and healthy foods.
What can start out as an attempt to “get healthier” and improve your physical and mental health has often lead to the rise of eating disorders because of the hyper-awareness of food that it cultivates. Eating disorders are there own mental illness altogether, and actually have the highest mortality rate among mental illnesses. In short, be mindful but not obsessive.
So what we are looking at here is that a diet that is low in processed and refined sugars and high in omega 3s fatty acids, lean fish sources, vegetables, and probiotics. This combination is thought to help fight free radicals which impair the brain’s functioning, and increase or regulate serotonin to help increase mood and decrease depression and anxiety.
If you are curious how your diet may or may not be affecting your mood and mental health, we suggest you to simply try it for a period of time. For a few weeks or a month, cut out processed sugars and high-fat foods and increase your intake of some of the foods we mentioned above. See if it makes a difference. If anything, you will at least likely be able to run better, feel better physically, and even lose a little weight– which all three can actually lead to less anxiety and a better mood too.