Eating well is good for your mental health
Bacon, sugar and processed carbs might be the ‘buzz words’ on everyone’s lips, but it’s not just cancer that we should be worried about.
Our mental health takes a blow every time we ‘treat’ ourselves to junk.
Yes, we are what we eat – and not just in a superficial way. Our diet really does affect how we feel.
To be happy, balanced and well is as easy as making friends with super foods and sticking to an ongoing healthy diet, according to the experts.
- Check into Bodypass for all round health.
The International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research has released a guideline of the types of diet we should follow to avoid depression – citing the Mediterranean, Norwegian and Japanese cuisine as healthiest.
Unsurprisingly, fruit, vegetables, legumes, wholegrain cereals, nuts and seeds were also top at the top of of the list, while junk food was classified as triggering depression.
An Australian study from the University of Newcastle found those who consumed a high intake of fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole grains showed lower risk of depression.
And in combined research between the University of Melbourne and Deakin University, certain nutrients in food (including omega-3, B vitamins, chlorine, iron, zinc, magnesium, S-adenosyl methionine, vitamin D and amino acids) were seen to increase brain health and be promoted as dietary intervention for mental health disorders.
Then there’s the astonishing link between brain size and food.
Deakin University has discovered those who eat junk food have smaller brains.
Adults who ate unhealthy foods such as sweet drinks, salty snacks and processed meats were found to have much smaller hippocampi compared to those who ate nutrient rich foods like fruit and veg their whole lives, according to researchers.
The junk food offenders also showed higher risk of dementia, cognitive decline, depression and anxiety.
How is it then, despite knowing healthy food is good for us that we reach for that quick fix at 3pm – be it in the form of a chocolate or sugary muffin?
Health psychologist Dr Louisa Hoey believes today’s societal demands make knowing what to eat and how to feel that much more challenging.
“We’re torn between wanting to be moderately healthy, but being busy and stressed results in us starving and making poor choices – which then becomes a direct stress and impacts on our mental health,” says Hoey.
Dr Hoey says the only way to break the busy barrier is to make mindfulness a part of our daily eating ritual.
“When we’re not being mindful of ourselves and our body, we don’t eat what our body needs. In Europe, people sit down and eat, whereas in Australia we walk and eat, drive and eat,” says Hoey.
“By eating mindlessly, whether in front of the TV or phone, it directly affects our mood – we stop being in the moment. So by practising mindfulness, we are more calm and overall feel better mentally.”
But knowing how to eat is only part of it. Learning what to eat to best serve and nourish our mind is the biggest thing.
Lee Sutherland, a PT and health coach from Fitness in the City, says it’s all about gut health.
“Gut health is super important because our stomach acts as a second brain – if we don’t eat foods that can absorb nutrients properly, then there’s no point,” says Sutherland.
And science also backs ‘the gut as a second brain’ theory.
According to recent breakthrough research from ETH Zurich University, the gut has its own nervous system, which constantly sends sensory information upstream to the brain via the vagus nerve.
So you know that sick in the stomach feeling you get when you’re anxious? That’s an example of how our brain and gut share a relationship.
How do we make our gut happy (and therefore our mood)?
By stripping back our diet and eating nutrient rich whole foods.
“If it’s from the ground, swims or walks, hasn’t been interfered by humans or come in a shiny packet, then it’s clean, natural food,” says Sutherland.
Sutherland also warns steering clear of social media messages.“Instagram might have brought awareness to eating good food, but people get caught up thinking paleo or vegan means an instant six pack,” says Sutherland. “They don’t realise eating a raw cake made from 3kgs of nuts and coconut oil is still going to go straight to their hips.”
Instead, Sutherland says the number one focus should be on bio individuality – meaning what works for someone else might not work for you.
“If you don’t eat correctly for your body, you feel sluggish and depressed, so it’s about realising what your triggers are and what makes you feel good.”
Once you know your weaknesses, it’s important to know what foods nourish you.
And that sugary snack just won’t cut it.
“Foods high in sugar can cause fatigue, anxiety and lethargy which are never a good combination for feeling good,” says Bodypass resident nutritionist, Rachel Javes.
Sutherland also says steer clear of the caffeine: “coffee and a high acidic diet causes stress on the adrenal glands.”
It can also lead to a ‘leaky gut,’ says Sutherland. “If you don’t have the integrity of the bowel wall nutrients pass through both good and bad, your body can become filled with toxins.”
Read on for the best nutrient-happy foods.
The Mood Boosters…
Omega-3 – Found in fish and nuts.
“Our brain is made of 60 per cent fat, so by upping omega-3 fatty acids through eating salmon, mackerel and sardines, it boosts brain function and our mood too,” says Sutherland. “Research shows those who feel flat can often have low omega-3 levels.”
Not a fish person? Snack on walnuts instead. “Not only do these little nuts look like the brain, but they contain the highest level of omega-3 oil over any other nut making them perfect for mental health,” says Javes.
Glutamine – Found in beef, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, wheat, cabbage, beetroot, beans, spinach and parsley.
Glutamine is an amino acid that helps us metabolise food. However when we get stressed, our glutamine levels drop. “We need dietary sources with glutamine to help absorb our food and give us energy,” says Sutherland. “If you’re sluggish and not going to the toilet, toxins continue to circulate the body and maintain a brain fog,” says Sutherland.
Tryptophan – Found in red meat, chicken, fish, nuts and seeds, grains, eggs and dairy.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that when ingested transforms into serotonin and works together with hormones noradrenalin and dopamine to enhance mood and reduce stress.
“Eating protein rich sources will boost serotonin to your brain and encourage the feel good effect,” says Javes.
B vitamins – Found in leafy greens.
B vitamins help convert food into energy, metabolise fats, give us healthy skin, hair, eyes and liver, but mot importantly help the nervous system function.
Vitamin B6 is the super star though. It helps neurotransmitters carry signals around the body, assisting with brain function and the production of serotonin and norepinephrine – key sources for maintaining happiness levels.
“Leafy greens are high in vitamin B so by upping your green intake, you’ll keep your mood perky,” says Javes.
Probiotic bacteria – Found in yoghurt, keffir, kombucha and fermented foods.
Probiotics, also known as good bacteria, are live cultures or microorganisms that help maintain a healthy gut. Probiotics are proven to help a range of stomach issues (such as irritable bowel and diarrhea) but more importantly, maintain healthy brain functioning.
“Foods with good bacteria are essential for restoring good gut health, reducing anxiety and building a strong immune system,” says Javes.
Probiotics even have the power to alter neurochemistry and treat anxiety and depression-related disorders, according to a University College Cork study.
Herbals – Found in teas or supplements.
“Passion flower, St Mary’s thistle, St Johns Wart and vervain all are great for the nervous system – they help you sleep and feel more chilled,” says Sutherland.
“Herbal tea can help nurture your body and allow you to take out five minutes for yourself –they are gentler than tablets or mixtures,” says Sutherland.
Sutherland recommends brewing and chilling overnight and then using as a base for smoothies for an extra dose of goodness.
- Check into Bodypass for all round health.
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