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Food for your mood: How what you eat affects your mental health


It's widely known that nutrition plays a key role in your physical health. But studies also show that nutrition directly affects our mental and emotional well-being, too.

“It makes sense that what we put in our body would also impact our mental health,” says Dr. Deborah Fernandez-Turner, Deputy Chief Psychiatric Officer at Aetna. “Good health describes a condition of optimal well-being. That means the body and the mind, operating in harmony. Both are equally important when defining your health journey.”

The science behind food and mood

The link between diet and emotions stems from the close relationship between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract, often called the “second brain.”

Here’s how it works: Your GI tract is home to billions of bacteria that influence the production chemical substances that constantly carry messages from the gut to the brain. Two common examples of this are dopamine and serotonin.

Eating nutritionally dense food promotes the growth of “good” bacteria, which in turn positively affects the production of these chemicals. When production is optimal, your brain receives these positive messages loud and clear, and your mental state can reflect it. On the other hand, when production goes awry, so might your mood.

Sugar, in particular, is considered a major culprit of inflammation. It feeds “bad” bacteria in the GI tract. Ironically, it can also cause a temporary spike in “feel good” chemicals like dopamine. "You don’t want that either”, says Dr. Fernandez-Turner. “These spikes result in a fleeting sugar rush, followed by a hard crash.”

When you stick to a diet of nutrient-rich foods, you’re setting yourself up for fewer mood swings and an improved ability to focus. Studies have even found that clean diets consisting of mainly whole, unprocessed foods, can help with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Whereas unhealthy diets have been linked to an increased risk of dementia or stroke.

Foods that help you be healthy

So, what should you put in your cart and on your plate? Here’s a quick overview of what to look for next time you’re in the grocery store.

  • Whole foods
    Some studies show that preservatives, food colorings and other additives may cause or worsen hyperactivity and depression. "If you have one thing to remember, it's to eat real food, or food that’s minimally processed and has a few healthy ingredients,” says Sarah Jacobs, holistic nutritional counselor and co-founder of The Wellness Project. Think fresh fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors.
The powerful nutrients produced by colorful produce have tons of benefits for the mind and body. Their nutritional properties are often contained in the colors themselves. By including naturally colorful foods in our diet, we make it much easier for our bodies to get more vitamins and nutrients and reap the many physical and psychological benefits.
  • Fiber
    Plant-based foods are full of fiber which helps your body absorb glucose (food sugars) more slowly. This helps you avoid sugar rushes and crashes. Fiber-rich foods include fruits, vegetables, and nutrient-filled carbs like whole grains and beans.
  • Antioxidants
    These inflammation fighters are especially plentiful in berries, leafy green vegetables, the spice turmeric, and foods with Omega-3 fatty acids, including salmon and black chia seeds. Dark chocolate also contains antioxidants – and sugar – so indulge in moderation.

  • Folate
    This type of B vitamin helps with dopamine production without forcing it to surge the way sugars do. Find it in leafy greens, lentils and cantaloupes.

  • Vitamin D 
    Vitamin D helps with the production of serotonin, and we usually get it from exposure to sunlight. But mushrooms are another good source, Jacobs says. If you’re deficient in vitamin D, your doctor may also recommend taking a supplement. Aetna members may receive discounts on supplements; check your plan’s benefits for details.

  • Magnesium
    This essential mineral helps with everything from nerve and muscle function to keeping a steady heartbeat. But it’s also vital to the food-mood connection. A mineral deficiency can hurt the bacteria in your gut and cause depression and anxiety-like symptoms. Load up with natural sources such as cacao nibs, almonds and cashews, spinach and other dark leafy greens, bananas and beans.

  • Fermented foods
    Fermented foods are packed with probiotics, which are certain live bacteria that are good for your digestive tract. Examples include sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and the fermented drink kombucha. These foods also tend to be high in sodium, so consume in moderation or skip altogether if you have high blood pressure.

On your plate and on with your life

Incorporating good-for-your-mood foods into your diet may take some extra effort at first, Dr. Jacobs says. She suggests preparing a week’s worth of chopped veggies and soaked and cooked beans ahead of time. This makes DIY meals easier to whip up and just as tempting as take-out. Strapped for time? Dr. Fernandez-Turner suggests using frozen fruit and vegetables and 10-minute brown rice, quinoa or whole-grain couscous.

You can also try making small healthy food swaps, like trading white rice, pasta and bread for whole-grain versions. This helps increase good fiber in your body, which aids in digestion. And instead of a bag of chips, choose a side salad packed with nuts, seeds and colorful vegetables for extra flavor.

Of course, general nutrition rules still apply. This means staying hydrated, not skipping meals, and being mindful of your caffeine and alcohol intake. Dr. Fernandez-Turner says. “It’s a good idea to discuss with your doctor if you should drink caffeine or alcohol based on your personal health history and goals, and if so, how frequently in order to stay healthy,” she adds.

You don’t have to feel pressure to make all of these changes right away, Dr. Fernandez-Turner points out. “You may find it easier to take things a day at a time or implement a new substitution each week,” she says. For example, one week you could replace processed sugar with fresh fruit, and the next week you could add more vegetables and lean protein. “There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to your health,” she adds.

Being present and mindful while we eat is another effective tool that can combat cravings or overeating. “Try to notice the way your food smells, tastes, and feels as you eat it,” Dr. Fernandez-Turner says. And take note of how the nutritious snacks and meals make you feel afterward. Some people who move to a mostly plant-based diet, for instance, often notice that their energy and focus are sustained throughout the day.

It may take days or weeks before you start to feel the mood-boosting effects of a better diet. It depends on how many changes you make. Lasting transformation doesn’t happen overnight, but the healthy choices you make each day build on each other. In time, you’ll see the positive results in both your mind and body.


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