It’s often said that we are what we eat, but our diets don’t just affect our physical health; they also impact our mental well-being.
Case in point: Studies have found a correlation between the standard U.S. diet (think excessive sodium, refined grains, saturated fat, and sugar) and depression and anxiety among Americans.
Researchers have also linked a lack of proper nutrients to a smaller left hippocampus in adults, which can negatively impact brain plasticity, learning, memory, and mood.
These scientific findings highlight the importance of a balanced diet. However, with a hectic schedule layered in, the struggle to make healthy food choices can be very real. One solution? Tailoring your diet to optimize your cognitive abilities and your mental health.
10 Tips to Optimize Your Diet for Mental Health
If you’re looking to improve your diet for mental health, keep it as simple as possible. You don’t need to spend hours researching the latest supplements; that research will just take up more of your time.
Instead, rely on the tried-and-true dietary advice health professionals offer when it comes to protecting your mental health.
Here are some easy and effective tips to eat your way to better mental health:
1. Reduce Sugar and Processed Foods
Sugar and processed foods may be tasty (and tempting), but they can lead to inflammation in the body. Inflammation revs up the stress hormone cortisol and can contribute to various mood disorders.
If you have a sweet tooth, opt for fruits with lower sugar content, such as berries, and be sure to pay attention to nutrition labels to identify hidden sugar.
2. Focus on Gut Health
Your gut, also known as your “second brain,” communicates with your brain via the vagus nerve. This nerve-brain connection impacts your sleep, mood, experience of pain, hunger, and stress levels.
Your gut also produces a significant amount of serotonin, a hormone associated with happiness.
So, as you likely already know, we want to promote our gut health. You can do this by consuming natural prebiotics (such as onions and garlic) and probiotics (found in foods like yogurt, kimchi, and kombucha) and adding plenty of fiber to your diet.
3. Eat Leafy Greens
To support your mental health, keep your fridge filled with plenty of leafy greens. Spinach is an excellent choice because it contains lutein which protects your brain against cognitive decline. Other leafy greens, such as kale, are rich in folate, which can lower your risk for depression.
One easy way to incorporate leafy greens into your diet is by mixing them in with salads, smoothies, or as a side dish with dinner.
4. Opt for Cold-Water Seafood
Salmon and other fatty cold-water fish contain DHA and EPA, omega-3 fatty acids that have been shown to support brain health.
Additionally, cold-water seafood contains a high amount of vitamin D, which has been linked to lower rates of depression. If you prefer shellfish, opt for oysters or mussels, which rank high on their Antidepressant Food Score.
5. Incorporate Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Studies have shown that a diet rich in extra virgin olive oil can lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety. Those who follow the Mediterranean diet frequently use EVOO in their recipes, and research has shown this diet’s effectiveness in reducing depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.
While you’re cooking, try substituting olive oil for less healthy oils, such as safflower, canola, and soy oil, or add a drizzle of it to pasta or salad for a tasty finish.
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6. Treat Yourself to Cacao
Eating cacao can have positive impacts on your mental health because it’s rich in magnesium, which helps reduce cortisol levels (stress). Additionally, cacao can boost mood, improve memory, and optimize brain function.
To add more cacao to your diet, try nibbling on some dark chocolate. (Hint: Opt for the darkest chocolate you can find.) Dark chocolate contains a higher percentage of cacao than milk chocolate, as well as high levels of flavonoids (antioxidants that can help protect your brain). You can also simply stick to cacao nibs.
7. Opt for Organic Chicken
Plant-based diets are known for their many health benefits, but they may not be feasible for everyone. If you prefer to eat meat, organic chicken may be a good brain-boosting choice due to its high levels of vitamin B5 and magnesium.
Eating chicken can support a healthy mental state because it contains tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes serotonin production. Adequate serotonin levels are crucial for mood regulation, reducing depression, and maintaining a sharp memory.
8. Try Turmeric
Studies have found that turmeric, a spice commonly used in Indian cuisine, can help reduce stress and inflammation. Additionally, its active ingredient curcumin, has been shown to increase serotonin and dopamine production, which may help elevate mood and alleviate symptoms of depression.
Sprinkle a bit of turmeric into your coffee or morning smoothie to help support brain cell growth and enhance memory.
9. Eat Whole Grains
Carbs aren’t bad for you, but you have to make sure you are eating nutritionally-dense sources of carbs. Whole grains, in particular, can provide you with sustained energy and help stabilize your mood.
Additionally, whole grains can improve various metabolic markers, including cholesterol, glucose metabolism, inflammation, and blood pressure, all of which can protect your mind from cognitive decline. Try incorporating whole wheat, brown rice, and oats into your meals to reap the mental health benefits.
10. Reach for Maca
Maca, a root vegetable related to radishes, is emerging as a valuable aid for mental wellness and energy. This is partly because Maca is rich in flavonoids, which can boost mood and reduce symptoms of depression.
Try incorporating this butterscotch-tasting root vegetable in smoothies, freshly squeezed juices, or soups.
The Bottom Line
Prioritize your diet to support your mental health, and you increase your energy as well as your likelihood of achieving your goals and living a more balanced life.
Although it may seem convenient to grab fast food on a busy day, investing time to find and eat foods that nourish your mental well-being will bring you a high ROI on your overall health.
Ready to take your well-being to the next level? Take our free health assessment today and get personalized recommendations to help you achieve your goals.