How to Eat Healthy When Mental Health Makes Doing Things Feel ~Hard~

What's on your menu can drastically impact your mood. Find out how to fuel up to Zen out.

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Feeling weighed down by the pandemic, recent legislation or other heavy news? You're not alone. More than 40% of adults reported feeling more anxious in 2021 than in 2020, according to a May 2021 poll from the American Psychiatric Association. And 1 in 4 say they experience at least moderate symptoms of depression regularly, an April 2022 survey by the Covid States Project found. That's not even counting those of us who feel stressed on a daily basis.

When you're frazzled or down about the state of the world, the last thing on your mind might be what's on your plate. Bianca Tamburello, a registered dietitian nutritionist for Fresh Communications in Boston, says your diet can make a big difference in both preventing and easing symptoms of depression, anxiety and milder moments of feeling down.

How Your Diet Is Linked to Your Mood

While there's no substitute for a personalized mental health plan, which may include therapy and/or medication, "the connection between nutrition and physical health is widely known. What we eat can positively or negatively impact mental health," Tamburello says.

In addition, it's quite normal to turn to "comfort foods" when you're down or stressed. As such, it can be difficult to know if your diet is contributing to symptoms of mood problems or if mood problems are driving your food choices (or a combination of both). It's the classic "chicken or the egg" thought, adds Alex Caspero, RD, a St. Louis-based registered dietitian and the owner of Delish Knowledge.

Regardless of whether your less-than-healthy menu is a factor in your blue feelings or is the result of a down mindset, your bites can help inch your brain into brighter territory.

So what does a brain-boosting diet look like, exactly, and how can you make this a reality in your kitchen when you just feel like lying on the couch? Tamburello and Caspero are here to coach you through it.

How to Eat to Boost Your Mood

Before we go any further, it's important to acknowledge that there are many factors that go into mental health challenges.

"There are barriers that disproportionately affect people with mental illness, including financial and environmental determinants of health," Caspero says. "Access to healthier foods can be limiting, especially with chronic mental health issues and chronic stress can significantly affect food choices. This then affects how you feel and impacts weight, which could trigger hormonal and inflammatory reactions that also influence mood," she explains.

There's no one food or diet that can completely cure or prevent a mental health diagnosis. However, if you have the means and ability to make some choices that might move the needle, a July 2017 Psychiatry Research meta-analysis of 21 studies showed that an eating style with these elements is generally associated with lower risk for depression:

  • More fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy products and antioxidants. (Antioxidants are found in plant-based foods, such as fruits and veggies.)
  • Fewer animal products, processed meats, refined grains and sweets.

The recommended foods to eat more of happen to be found in a Mediterranean-style diet. A Mediterranean diet is generally associated with better mental health than the typical Western diet, Caspero confirms. While more research is needed to explain exactly why, it may be that a Western diet (rich in foods that are high in saturated fat and added sugar) disrupts the gut microbiome, which is made up of trillions of bacteria, promoting inflammation and altering hormones in a way that may affect your mood and cognition, suggests research.

Mood-regulating neurotransmitters are another factor. "Most of the serotonin, a mood-boosting chemical in the brain, is made by your gut. Fermented foods offer probiotics, healthy bacteria that are important to support a healthy gut for serotonin production," Tamburello says.

5 Easy Ways to Add More Mood-Boosting Foods to Your Menu

There's no need to completely overhaul your diet when you're already feeling overly stressed. "Putting too much pressure on yourself during periods of stress, anxiety and depression can exacerbate symptoms," Tamburello says. Still, there are things you can do to shift your eating habits to support mental health. First, give yourself grace, then try to incorporate these five simple swaps one at a time:

1. Sub salmon for beef, poultry, chicken or turkey once per week.

"Frozen salmon fillets are always in my freezer because they are quick to prepare and are packed with healthy omega-3 fats, which are associated with a lower risk of depression," Tamburello says. "Most adults do not eat the recommended amount of two servings of fatty fish per week, so this is a great place to start," she adds.

If you don't enjoy fish, try to add plant sources of omega-3 fats to your meals or snacks three or more times per week. These include flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts.

2. Make one dinner per week lentil- or bean-based instead of animal protein-focused.

As we mentioned, eating less animal products is associated with positive mental health outcomes, plus legumes are loaded with gut-health-promoting fiber. "If you're not ready to completely swap out meat, try cooking with half meat and half beans, such as a burger made with half ground beef and half mushrooms, or tacos made with half ground turkey and half beans," Tamburello says.

3. Stock up on ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables.

"Fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients so it's no surprise that a diet high in produce is beneficial for the body and mind," Tamburello says. But fresh foods can be a bit laborious to get nosh-ready. So if the concept of washing, trimming and chopping feels daunting, take some help from the store—then position them in the front of your refrigerator at eye level. Grab a bag of pre-washed greens or a salad kit, snag a container or two of already-prepped fruit salad, and add these go-to low-maintenance fruits and veggies that Tamburello recommends to your online shopping cart:

  • Baby carrots
  • Edamame pods
  • Snap peas
  • Mini cucumbers
  • Baby peppers
  • Bananas
  • Apples
  • Clementines

4. Supplement meals and snacks with fermented foods.

For a natural serotonin boost and a healthier gut all at once, instead of milk with your cereal, try it paired with a Greek-style yogurt. Or top a sandwich or grain bowl with a spoonful of kimchi or sauerkraut. If you could use a refresher on what fits into this category, check out these 7 must-eat fermented foods.

5. Opt for whole grains instead of refined grains once per day.

Whole-grain foods, such as brown rice and whole-wheat bread, tortillas and pasta, have more fiber than their white counterparts, which means these grains help support a healthy gut and healthy blood sugar levels and simply deliver more nutrition than refined grains. Whole grains also are the No. 1 food that promotes heart health. Take a peek at our whole grain 101 guide to learn how to spot whole grains at the store, then score some inspiration from these favorite whole-grain recipes.

When to Seek Mental Health Help

Remember that professional mental health care is also very important. The Mayo Clinic suggests seeking treatment if you notice:

  • Stark changes in personality, eating or sleeping patterns
  • Difficulty coping with problems or daily activities
  • Feeling like normally enjoyable activities are just "meh"
  • Severe anxiety
  • Prolonged sadness, depression or apathy
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Substance misuse
  • Extreme mood swings, anger, hostility or violent behavior

The Bottom Line

When it comes to a meal plan that supports your happiest brain and body, a Mediterranean diet is your best bet, current research suggests. Try incorporating one healthy diet change each week, and don't be afraid to turn to semi-homemade recipes, healthy fast-food options, frozen foods, canned foods and meal kits. Outsourcing can absolutely be part of a healthy lifestyle. And we could all use one less thing to worry about, right?

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