How much do you know about the food-mood connection? Do you know what foods and supplements support a positive mood for YOUR brain and body? Or do you notice when certain foods cause an increase in symptoms of anxiety or low mood?
You are what you eat. It’s a phrase that has become popular in health and wellness spaces, emphasizing the fact that the food we eat impacts our bodies. But what if we told you that you FEEL what you eat? There is a real connection between our diet and our moods. In this blog post, we will go over some of the most important things to consider when it comes to eating a diet that best supports your mental health.
Macronutrients are the basis for our foods. The three essential macronutrients for mental health are protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Let’s break down each one and how it can impact your mood.
Protein: Protein is made up of amino acids, and these are important because they are the building blocks of our bodies, more specifically, our neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the basis for the chemical messages that take place in our brains. You may have heard, for example, of serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter that helps improve our mood. This is one example of why adequate protein is so important. Without adequate protein, our brains won’t be able to produce enough serotonin (feel-good neurotransmitter) or dopamine (our reward and pleasure neurotransmitter). An imbalance in either of these can lead to symptoms including depression and ADHD symptoms (when there is not enough) or psychosis (when there is too much). So how much protein should you eat? Aim for 50 grams each day, coming out to approximately 15-20 grams per meal. Some of the best sources of protein are meat, fish, eggs, soy (tofu and tempeh are great, but avoid soy protein isolate found in many fake meat products and protein powders or bars), beans, or greek yogurt.
Fats: Fats have gotten a bad rep over the years, but they’re critical for mental health. Why? Because the right kinds of fats actually allow those neurotransmitters to work properly in our brains. Without protein, we can’t build the neurotransmitters. But without fat, we can’t allow them to work. The best kinds of fats to use for cooking are coconut oil and olive oil, because of their high smoke point (they won’t burn at higher temperatures). When it comes to mental health, however, perhaps the most important part of eating enough of quality fats is to ensure the right amount of Omega-3’s. Getting enough Omega-3’s has been proven to be beneficial in cases of ADHD, bipolar disorder, and depression. The best way to get enough of the right kinds of Omega-3’s is through fish. This is because the EPA and DHA found in fish oil are the most beneficial to neurotransmitter function. You should aim to eat a 4-6 oz. serving of salmon, halibut, mackerel, krill, or herring 2 times per week. Vegan or vegetarian? No problem, while fish oil is the most bioavailable (easiest to be used by your body) source of Omega-3’s, you can also get your dose from nuts and seeds (walnuts are the best!), ground flax seeds, or chia seeds. What if you’re a meat eater that hates the taste of fish? We got you! You can take a fish oil supplement to ensure you get enough. Look for one that has 500-1000 mg of EPA and 300-700 mg of DHA. You also want to make sure the supplement is molecularly distilled – this ensures that it is mercury and pesticide free. Also, make sure to take this on an empty stomach to avoid any fishy burps!
Carbohydrates: It’s important to remember that not all carbs are created equal. There is a big difference between a slice of wonder bread and a side of quinoa when it comes to your mental health. The thing to focus on when it comes to carbohydrates is that this is the energy source of your body. The more active you are, the more carbohydrates you need. Carbohydrates are something to really consider when it comes to balancing your blood sugar, which is vital for mood regulation. We will talk more about balancing blood sugar and the importance for your mental health further down in the post.
Aside from protein, fats, and carbs, your food is also made up of micronutrients – the vitamins and minerals that are essential for your health. The most important three for your mental health that we will talk about here are Magnesium, Vitamin D, and B-Vitamins.
Magnesium: Magnesium is truly a star when it comes to your mental health. Unfortunately, magnesium deficiency is incredibly common. Magnesium is essential for anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, anger/irritability, as well as other physical symptoms such as headaches, migraines, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and sciatica (all somatic symptoms that can really impact your mental health when they are reoccurring). Some common signs of magnesium deficiency are anxiety, panic attacks, irritability and anger, difficulty focusing, poor sleep, and a heightened sensitivity to pain. If you’re struggling with any of these symptoms, magnesium can be a great way to alleviate symptoms. The best sources of magnesium through diet are leafy greens (think spinach, kale, collards, etc.), beans and legumes, nuts, and whole grains. If these foods aren’t your favorite, you can also use a supplement. Aim for 300-400 mg per day and look for magnesium glycinate, the most absorbable form of magnesium.
Vitamin D: Chances are you’ve heard about Vitamin D (or lack thereof during the winter time). Vitamin D is the one vitamin that we can’t get from diet because we synthesize Vitamin D in our bodies when we are exposed to the sunlight. Vitamin D is a superstar for boosting our mood and low levels are associated with depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Luckily, Vitamin D supplementation can be helpful for either of these symptoms. The recommended dosage for Vitamin D is 600 iu per day, though some people may need 1000-5000 iu depending on symptoms. Talk to your doctor about having your levels tested to make sure you’re getting the correct amount you need.
B-Vitamins: I’m going to say it now – everyone needs to be focusing on B-Vitamins, and I mean everyone. Why are these so important? Because our bodies become depleted from these essential nutrients when we experience stress, and let’s be real, everyone experiences stress on some level. The more stress you are under, the more B-Vitamins you will need to consume. The best dietary sources of B-Vitamins are whole grains (make sure labels read 100% whole wheat flour), lentils, beans, bananas, tempeh, and nutritional yeast. If you’re experiencing higher than normal levels of stress, you may also want to consider a supplement. B-Vitamins are also essential if you are experiencing symptoms of depression. Look for one that reads “B-Complex” with a “B-50” dose. Make sure to take your vitamins with food to avoid an upset stomach and always take them in the morning, as they can be very energizing and if taken too late in the day, may impact your ability to fall asleep.
If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, irritability, ADHD, or mood swings, then balancing your blood sugar is essential. Blood sugar swings, both high and low, can cause any of these symptoms. The best way to balance your blood sugar is through diet. You want to combine protein, fat, complex carbs, and fiber at EVERY meal. It’s also important to avoid snacks that are mostly sugar or starches (think white potatoes, white bread, white pasta, etc.). This is where we circle back to the importance of carbohydrates. Complex carbs such as whole grain bread, brown rice, quinoa, and oats (just to name a few) take longer to digest, and therefore turn to sugar, in your bodies. This helps to prevent your blood sugar from rising too quickly. Eating these with protein, fats, and fiber also help slow the release of sugars into your bloodstream, allowing your levels (and your mood) to stay at a more stable level. Protein is especially important for this purpose. It can be misleading to hear sugars, because you may be thinking, bread isn’t a snickers bar – so how is it sugar? The reason is that all carbohydrates you eat eventually turn to sugar, it’s just a matter of how fast. The slower they turn into sugar (what becomes your energy), the more stable your blood sugar levels will stay. You also want to eat regularly to avoid your blood sugar from dropping too low. Aim for 3 meals and 2 snacks each day (spaced out into 3-4 hour intervals) or 5-6 small meals.
Your mental health is so much more than just your emotions. In fact, your emotions are impacted by a host of factors, and diet is one of them. While there are so many ways that your diet and lifestyle impact your mental health, starting with these basics can be truly life changing. At Move Therapy and Wellness, our therapists believe in looking at all the factors impacting someone’s mental health. This includes diet, sleep, exercise, relationships, stress, and so much more. If you’re struggling with your mood and are looking for support, please know you can always reach out to our team.