Healthier diets don’t just have physical benefits. When it comes to food and your mood, the way you eat can also affect your mental health. Fruits, veggies, and whole grains have naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and compounds that fuel our bodies—and our brains. So it makes sense that if you’re not eating enough of them, you might suffer from poor mental health. In fact, unhealthy diets have been linked to depression.
Stress, sugar, and your brain
Plain and simple, sugar can be addicting. Sugary treats trigger pleasure sensors in the brain–the same ones as addictive drugs. That’s one reason that when we feel sad, we might turn to a cookie or ice cream instead of a salad. That’s not to say that eating a piece of cake on your birthday is going to throw you into a depressive state. However, a pattern of addictive behavior is something to watch out for.
Researchers have found that stress actually triggers a reaction in your body that causes you to seek out sugar. The more stressed-out you feel, the more you’ll probably crave sugary food. Think about the last time you had a stressful work day. At 3pm, did you reach for carrot sticks to fuel you through a tough project, or did you hit up the donuts leftover from the morning meeting?
One way to prevent the problems associated with diets high in sugar is to reduce your stress levels! More exercise, better sleep, and getting a regular massage can help lower your stress. Replacing your sugary snack habits with more nutritious foods can also have a positive impact on your mental health.
Mindful eating vs. emotional eating
Emotional eating. We’ve probably heard the term, usually associated with downing a tub of ice cream after a bad break-up. However, emotional eating is a real thing. When you’re stressed, sad, or distracted by your emotions, you’re probably less focused on what (and how much) you eat. Mindful eating is a practice in which you put focused attention on your food while you’re eating it. By slowing down and savoring the tastes, textures and experience of eating healthy foods, you appreciate them more! Mindful eating also helps prevent overeating. WIth more attention on how you feel as you’re eating, you’re more likely to stop when you are actually satisfied.
Western diets are often higher in processed foods and sugar compared with traditional diets. When researchers compare the risk of depression for different diets, they found that those eating a Western diet were 25-35% more likely to suffer from depression. While more research is needed to identify the specific reasons for this difference, scientists believe the increased intake of fresh fruits, veggies, and wild-caught fish could be a factor.
If you want to try following a more traditional diet, many nutritionists recommend starting with the Mediterranean diet. The basics of the Mediterranean diet are to eat plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, healthy fats like olive oil, unprocessed whole grains, and replace red meats with fresh, wild-caught seafood (grilled, not fried!). The Japanese diet follows a similar pattern. Because Japan is an island nation, the diet there is higher in fresh fish and seaweed, which contains many healthy minerals and vitamins. Japanese diets are also high in gut-friendly fermented foods like tofu and miso, and antioxidant-packed green tea.
Next time you find yourself in an emotional rut, take a moment to observe your eating habits. A change in diet could make a big difference in your mood and mental health!