Nutrition advice is constantly changing. It can be difficult to keep up with the nutrition news on what is “good” for us and what is “bad.”
It is challenging to know what makes a good informed choice. If we look at the obesity trend, it tells us we have work to do in nutrition education. Research shows that somewhere between 60-69 percent of the U.S. population is overweight, obese or extremely obese.
It is not surprising that a diet filed with ultra-processed foods act as a contributor to not only obesity but to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even mental health disorders. When returning from work or school after a long day, who is really craving a snack of celery or carrots? People reach for convenience foods and not fruits and vegetables. These nutrient-dense foods we are lacking in our diet provide the needed vitamins and minerals that act as co-factors in so many chemical reactions in the body and the brain.
More data have recently highlighted that a “junk food” diet is associated with increased risk of a mental disorder. In fact, it has been shown that these energy-dense foods cause the part of the brain responsible for mood regulation, the hippocampus, to reduce in size and function. These types of foods also contribute to a change in the microflora in the intestines.
More and more we are learning about the two-way communication between the brain and our gut. These microbes send signals to our brain through our neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Our feeling of well-being and motivation come from these chemicals. Without the balance of these neurotransmitters in the brain, disorders in mental health appear. Scientists are linking depression and anxiety to poor diets and an imbalance of the gut microbiota.
Nutritional Psychiatry examines the role of diet in people with mental illness. Whole food diets consisting of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, fish, balanced monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats as well as limited processed foods show a positive association in treatment. More progress can be achieved by looking further at nutrient deficiencies, lifestyle factors and even genetic expression. Appropriate support can be designed to not only help manage symptoms but also potentially address the root cause.
A few things you can do to support good mental health:
– Choose foods wisely. Instead of reaching for the quick fix that will leave you hungry in an hour, plan and prepare a meal or snack with good protein and healthy fats. Omega 3 fats in particular, found in fatty fish, have a positive effect on depression and anxiety. EPA and DHA, types of Omega 3 fatty acids, have been shown to have antidepressant effects. Tip: remember SMASH – Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines and Herring. Enjoy a 3-4 ounce portion twice per week if no allergies to fish.
– Include foods that promote positive intestinal health, such as yogurt, kefir, garlic, onions, leeks as well as foods high in fiber such as asparagus, bananas, oats, apples and jicama root. Fiber acts as a “prebiotic” to feed the gut microbes. This increased strength of the gut microflora affects the signaling to the brain for balanced serotonin and dopamine chemistry.
– Moderate red meat consumption, somewhere around 3-4 servings of a 3-4 ounce portion size per week has been shown to be beneficial for depression and anxiety. Grass fed and pastured is best to avoid inflammatory Omega 6 fatty acids that are higher in feedlot cattle.
– Include daily movement or exercise in your activities. This not only stimulates the lymph with your immune system and helps maintain muscle mass for musculoskeletal health, but it also increases signaling between the gut and the brain. In comparison studies, exercise reduced depressive symptoms similar to pharmacologic treatments.
– Make changes for the long term. Behavior change is usually attempted with an all or nothing approach. Imagine longevity with happiness throughout your years as the goal. Knowing the many small choices you make throughout the day are the ones that count adds up to a healthy body and mind.