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Last Updated on July 8, 2020
You’ve probably heard the expression “you are what you eat”. And, you may already know the physical health effects of a poor diet. In many cases, eating the wrong things for an extended period of time could even lead to an early death.
But, what many people don’t realize is that what you eat can also be linked to your mental health. Depression and anxiety are the two biggest mental health conditions across the globe. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 264 million people all over the world suffer from depression.
While there are varying factors and causes for these mental health conditions, what you eat on a daily basis could have a greater impact than you might think.
So, what is the connection between food and feelings? It’s a fascinating area of study, and if you’re truly interested in how food can impact the brain, you might want to consider furthering your education on the subject with a masters in psychology.
But, if you’re just interested in making better food choices for your own mental health, it’s important to know how the two are connected, and what you can do about it.
Which Foods Should You Avoid?
Remember, what you eat is only one factor that can contribute to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. But, it is a factor that can either help your existing symptoms, or have the power to make them worse.
One 2017 study found that people who had been diagnosed with depression tended to experience fewer negative symptoms once they started receiving nutritional counseling. When they learned how to make better, healthier food choices and implemented those changes into their lives, they started to feel better mentally.
So, perhaps the most obvious question is – which foods should you be avoiding if you’re prone to mental health issues, or if you’re already struggling with depression or anxiety?
While different foods impact people differently, there are a few things that have been shown to trigger the symptoms of depression and/or anxiety in many people. Some of these foods include:
- Alcohol – Alcohol can often contribute to a vicious cycle with mental health conditions. When people seek out coping mechanisms for depression, alcohol can be a place to turn. Unfortunately, it does more harm than good. Not only can it trigger even larger bouts of anxiety and depression but it can lead to other serious complications in your life. If you want to continue to have alcohol in your life, it’s extremely important to limit yourself to one drink every once in a while, rather than drinking every day or using alcohol as some sort of “treatment” for your mental health struggles.
- Processed Foods – Foods that contain preservatives, refined sugars, and other additives aren’t only bad for your physical health. Studies have shown that people who eat a higher amount of these foods are at a greater risk of depression. At least a part of this is likely due to the energy boost you get from refined carbohydrates. You can feel good for a while, but that energy quickly fades and you may “crash”. As a result, you’ll feel lethargic and possibly even fatigued.
- Oils – Processed oils like vegetable oil and margarine contain chemicals and additives that can increase inflammation within your body. But, they can also have an impact on your brain function. If you’re already struggling with a mental health condition like depression, the way these fats impact the brain could make your symptoms worse.
There is no “one” particular food you need to look out for when it comes to managing your mental health. Instead, it’s best to avoid foods that might first negatively impact your body before impacting your brain.
What Foods to Eat for Better Mental Health
Again, there isn’t just one perfect food that can give your mental health a boost. Rather, it’s important to choose foods that harbor specific vitamins and minerals that can benefit your brain. With that in mind, let’s cover a few of the most important nutrients your body needs to maintain positive mental health, and a few foods that are high in those nutrients:
- Selenium: Selenium is a trace mineral that is naturally present in human tissue. Your body needs it for everything from cognitive function to a strong immune system. When it comes to your mental health, increasing your selenium intake can help to improve your mood and lessen your fears and worries. As a result, you can feel less anxious and depressed. Foods that contain high amounts of selenium include whole grains, Brazil nuts, and even certain types of seafood.
- Vitamin D: You probably already know that vitamin D can come from the sun. That’s why so many experts suggest spending time outside to boost your mood and improve your energy levels. But, you can also get vitamin D from the things you eat, including oily fish, dairy products, and eggs.
- Antioxidants: There is no denying the benefits of antioxidants when it comes to things like heart health. But, they can also have an impact on your mental health. Antioxidants like vitamin A, C, and E help to remove free radicals from the body. Your body does this naturally, but can’t always remove enough on its own. A buildup of free radicals can cause internal stress. In addition to physical health problems, that can lead to anxiety and depression. Foods high in antioxidants include blueberries, soy, and most other plant-based products.
- Vitamin B: Vitamins B-12 and B-9 are meant to protect your body’s nervous system. A major part of that system is the brain. As a result, B vitamins can help with certain mood disorders, including feelings of depression. Thankfully, vitamin B is found in a variety of delicious foods, including eggs, meat, fish, poultry, and milk.
- Protein: Your body needs protein for a variety of reasons, including muscle repair. But, there are also specific types of protein your body uses in different ways. For example, tryptophan is often associated with causing people to fall asleep after a big Thanksgiving meal. But, tryptophan can actually help to boost the amount of serotonin in your brain, which can help you to feel happy. Yes, tryptophan is found in turkey, but it can also be found in tuna or chickpeas, and won’t necessarily make you tired.
- Probiotics: Though more studies need to be completed, it has been suggested that there is a direct connection between your gut health and mental health. Eating probiotics can help to eliminate bad bacteria from your gut, and replace it with the good bacteria your body needs.
By including a variety of these foods into your daily diet, you can have better control over your mental health, and start to feel better physically, too. It’s a positive cycle that can continue the more you take care of yourself.
Managing Your Weight to Decrease Depression
A poor diet can lead to a lot of different health issues, including obesity. There have been several studies done that suggest obesity can increase your risk of depression. One reason for this is the influx and change of hormones throughout the body.
Weight gain can also influence your self-confidence and esteem, which can increase your chance of feeling depressed. By making better, healthier dietary choices, you can reduce your risk of obesity and may even be able to lose weight.
Exercise is also an important part of managing your weight. Your diet is only part of the equation. Thankfully, exercising can also have a positive impact on your mental health. Like certain foods, it can help to boost serotonin levels in your brain, causing you to feel happier and to have more energy. Your body can experience those feelings of happiness long after you’ve completed your workout. That often motivates people to do more, until exercise becomes a daily habit. You can even go one step further by exercising outside! Working out in nature can give you an energy boost and improve your focus.
Again, people experience mental health issues for a variety of reasons. Some people have specific triggers while others seem to struggle with things like depression and anxiety all of the time. If you truly are struggling, finding help and someone to talk to is one of the best things you can do. Depression and anxiety don’t often go away on their own.
But, if you are getting the help you need, it’s also important to help yourself in the process. Take a look at the things you eat on a daily basis. Which category do they fall under when it comes to this article – foods to avoid, or ingredients you should be eating more of? You can be proactive about your mental health by making healthier, cleaner food choices each day, managing your weight, and staying active. While it is not the only solution to managing mental health conditions, it’s a simple one that puts you in control of the choices you make. If you’re struggling with depression, it’s a great place to start in order to feel better.