Food for Thought
The link between what’s on your plate and what’s in your mind.
Written by: Abigail Preiszig
It was a gloomy February, and I was feeling sad and hungry, looking for a quick bite to eat before class and I, like many college students, considered my fast-food options. I could have Cup Noodles before leaving my house, get a Big Mac on my drive to school or even get Arby’s before walking to my building. No matter what I ate, I knew it would be delicious, but filled with empty fats and calories that would not make me feel good.
When discussing a healthy diet, factors of weight and physical health are often at the forefront of everyone’s mind. But recently, greater importance has been placed on the connection between diet and mental health.
Nutritional psychiatry is a growing discipline connecting what you eat to how you feel and behave and what type of bacteria is present in your gut. For many years, the medical industry ignored the connection between “mood and food,” said one Harvard Health Blog. This field of study aims to figure out how our diet contributes to widespread anxiety, depression and other mood disorders.
First, think about how much energy your brain uses. Your body has time to rest, but your brain is always working to keep you going, so it requires constant fuel. According to the New York Times, 20% of all the energy we consume goes to our brain.
Like an expensive car, our brain needs premium fuel. Premium fuel for our brain consists of high-quality foods with lots of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Both our bodies and cars function with low quality fuel, like heavily processed or refined foods, but they won’t run as smoothly.
Next, think about when you’re nervous or excited: do you get butterflies in your stomach? This is your gut and brain communicating. This is called your gut-brain axis and it communicates in three different ways:
Neurotransmitters are your body's “chemical messengers.” Serotonin is well known for contributing to feelings of happiness. It also regulates sleep, appetite and pain. According to an article by Harvard Health, 95% of your serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract (your gut).
2. The Nervous System
Neurons are nerve cells found throughout your brain and central nervous system that tell your body how to behave. Your gut is lined with millions of neurons that connect to your brain through nerves and the central nervous system. This allows your brain and gut to send signals back and forth, distributing those neurotransmitters produced within your gut.
3. Gut Microbiome
The gut microbiome is made up of all the microorganisms, like bacteria, that inhabit your gut. The production of serotonin in your gut is influenced by what makes up your microbiome and produces other neurotransmitters, like gamma-aminobutyric acid that assists in controlling feelings of fear and anxiety. When gut bacteria are good, it will protect the lining of your intestine by providing a barrier against toxins and bad bacteria, improve nutrient absorption, limit inflammation and activate those neural pathways that travel between your gut and brain.
“We know if you eat a bunch of garbage, you feel like garbage, but the idea that it extends into our mental health risk is a connection we haven’t made in psychiatry until recently,” said Dr. Ramsey, author of the book “Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety” in an article for the New York Times.
Eating foods high in nutrients, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, healthy fats and antioxidants is the foundation for a healthy brain. Many articles suggest following a Mediterranean Diet that is filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats such as avocados and omega-3s. They also suggest avoiding processed foods, added sugar and refined grains. The Mediterranean Diet has been linked to improving memory, attention and processing speed as well as tied to lower risk of dementia, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. Healthline offers a great sample menu of a Mediterranean diet.
Diet can be used as a tool to help with mental health, but it should not replace treatments such as therapy or prescription drugs. It will also take time to see changes in your mental health after changing your diet.
So now that you have this information, what do you do with it? Incorporate brain healthy foods into your everyday diet.
Leafy greens are a great source of fiber, folate and vitamins A and C. Leafy greens include kale, spinach, arugula, collard greens and more. They are affordable and easy to add to smoothies. Baked kale chips are a quick and easy snack and a great substitute for potato chips.
Tasting the rainbow with colorful fruits and vegetables is Instagram worthy and delicious, and aids in memory, sleep and mood. Meal prepping a salad with all your favorite fruits and vegetables at the beginning of the week to take for lunch is a great way to set yourself up for success. Quinoa bowls filled with roasted veggies are another simple way to stay away from overly processed carbs and incorporate colorful foods into your diet.
Opting for seafood and limiting your consumption of fast food, red meat and poultry is another great way to eat for your mind. The “Tik Tok salmon bowl” is a great way to get your omega-3s while incorporating your leafy greens. If you are vegan or vegetarian, chia seeds are another great option, and often come in pudding form.
Nuts, beans, seeds and even nut butters are healthy snack options, which can be added to stir fries, soups and salads. Spices and herbs like cinnamon, ginger and turmeric are great for your brain and body as well. Cooking with olive or canola oil is another simple way you can switch up your diet.
Eating fermented foods such as yogurt, kombucha and cheese is a great way to contribute healthy microbes to your gut. Lastly, dark chocolate is delicious, easy to consume and packed full of antioxidants that can reduce the risk of depression symptoms.
You don’t have to take the plunge all at once, but making small changes in your daily diet and trying new recipes can be fun, exciting and make a difference in your mood and energy levels. Just some food for thought!