In the past few decades, there has been greater understanding and research to support that nutrition is also essential to mental wellness.
Eating three healthy meals a day with healthy snacks in between helps keep your mood stable and positive. It reduces the fluctuations in blood sugar which can cause fluctuations in mood. The common terminology is “hanger” (combination of hunger and anger, or getting irritable when hungry). Healthy meals should include protein and complex carbohydrates. Try to avoid simple or quick carbohydrates (e.g., white breads, pastas, and rice), which make your blood sugar spike then crash. In addition to being mindful of what you eat, it is crucial to also monitor serving sizes. A balanced diet that includes all food groups will provide the variety of nutrients needed for your brain and body to function optimally. On a daily basis, one should have two to three servings of lean proteins, two to three servings of whole grains, five to six servings of vegetables, and 1-2 servings of fruit (aim to eat whole fruit, instead of juice). Unless there is an allergy preventing, it’s not recommended to cut out a food group (such as dairy or gluten) as both the content and balance are important to good health and a healthy emotional state.
A healthy breakfast will regulate your body’s energy by boosting your metabolism. This is necessary after several hours of no intake while sleeping. It makes systems such as your brain, muscles and hormones function more efficiently.
Eating healthy complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice, whole wheat bread and legumes every day helps to keep your mood stable and increases the serotonin levels in your brain. Serotonin helps your brain to feel calm and reduces anxiety. Processed grain products, such as white bread, white rice and pastries, do not have this beneficial effect. In fact, they act as sugar in the body once digested.
Proteins are a key part of a balanced diet as they are the building blocks for new cells in our body, including the brain. Also, proteins help produce chemicals in the brain that help us to be alert and able to concentrate. Protein rich foods include lean meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, tofu, nuts and beans/legumes.
Healthy fats are also important to healthy brain function, both in replenishing cells and in how the brain chemistry works. Keep in mind the body needs only small amounts of healthy fat on a regular basis. Cooking with healthy fats, such as olive oil, canola oil, and peanut oil while avoiding saturated, poly-saturated and trans fats (these include lard, margarine, and bacon fat) is an easy healthy habit to incorporate into your daily life. Deep sea fish like salmon, sardines, anchovies are high in omega 3 fats and eating a serving one to two times per week is beneficial to good mood health. Olives and avocadoes are high in healthy fats and a serving once or twice per week can contribute to a healthy diet. Almonds, walnuts and peanuts are the nuts lowest in saturated fats and high in healthy fats. Keep serving size in mind when incorporating these in your diet. Unhealthy fats do not contribute as well and can cause a number of negative health reactions including obesity and cardiovascular disease.
There are foods that contribute to destabilizing our moods and should be avoided if possible or at least limited in frequency and amount. These include caffeine, alcohol, simple (or quick) carbohydrates. Caffeine is found in tea, coffee, sodas, energy drinks, chocolate and some over the counter pain medications. It takes your body up to 10 hours to process caffeine out of the system, depending on your individual metabolism.
A healthy and balanced diet can be a major contributor to improved mood and mental wellness. We encourage you to explore the wonderful world of healthy food choices.
Want to get started on a healthy mood eating plan, but unsure where to start? Get a free 30-minute phone consultation with an El Camino Hospital Dietitian by calling 650-940-7210.
This article first appeared in the May 2018 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter and was updated in May 2020.