Nutrition and Mental Health

National Nutrition Month is an annual nutrition education and information campaign created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The campaign, celebrated each year during the month of March, focuses on the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits. In observance of National Nutrition Month, I’d like to share some of my thoughts about the relationship between nutrition and mental health.

Not everyone understands the strong link between nutrition and mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. Depression is commonly thought to be based on a chemical imbalance or unstable emotions. Although these do play a large part, it’s often nutrition that surprisingly plays a significant role in the onset, duration, and intensity of depression.

From a young age, we’re taught that eating well helps us look and feel our physical best. What we’re not always told is that good nutrition significantly affects our mental health, too. A healthy, well-balanced diet can help us think clearly and feel more alert. It can also improve concentration and attention span. We’ve all heard the phrase “you are what you eat”. While that’s not literally true in this case, purposeful eating can help us to live a healthier lifestyle both physically and mentally.

Conversely, an inadequate diet can lead to fatigue, impaired decision-making, and can slow down reaction time. In fact, a poor diet can actually aggravate, and may even lead to, stress and depression.

Sugar and processed foods can lead to inflammation throughout the body and brain, which may contribute to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression. When we’re feeling stressed or depressed, it’s often processed foods we reach for in search of a quick pick-me-up. During busy or difficult periods, a cup of coffee stands in for a complete breakfast and fresh fruits and vegetables are replaced with high-fat, high-calorie fast food. When feeling down, a pint of ice cream becomes dinner (or you skip dinner altogether).

To boost your mental health, focus on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables along with foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon. Dark green leafy vegetables in particular are brain protective. Nuts, seeds and legumes, such as beans and lentils, are also excellent brain foods.