Can food impact mental health? The short answer, yes. In honor of Mental Health Awareness month, we’re exploring 4 checkpoints between food and mood including calories, macronutrients, appetite regulation, and your relationship with food. Let’s dive in!
Can Food Impact Mental Health?
Checkpoint #1: Adequate Calories (aka. Eating Enough Food)
Here’s the thing — food is our fuel. The body (including the brain) requires adequate calories to function and thrive. Skimping on calories, cutting certain food groups, and simply not eating enough lead to feelings of lethargy, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Have you ever felt this way?
Before focusing on *superfoods* to improve your mental health, strip it down to the basics. Ask yourself:
- Am I eating adequate meals and snacks during the day?
- Am I getting a variety of foods from the main food groups: grains, protein, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products?
Spend some time in honest reflection. We find our answers within.
Check Point #2: Your Relationship with Food
Your relationship with food matters. It’s the foundation of living a life well-nourished. When your relationship with food suffers, it’s difficult to maintain health-promoting behaviors.
A healthy relationship with food acknowledges all factors driving eating behaviors. It honors eating not only for biological needs but also for mental and emotional well-being. It supports health without compromising pleasure and satisfaction from food.
- Is my relationship with food a source of stress, anxiety, or discomfort in my life?
- What would a harmonious relationship with food look like to me?
For more on a healthful relationship with food, visit this blog post. If your relationship with food is causing more stress than nourishment, this might be your starting place for mending food and mood.
Check Point #3: How Macronutrients Fuel the Brain
The main macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. All are important because each fuels the body a little differently. Here’s a breakdown of each (with a hint of science for ya!):
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy. The brain uses 120 g of carbohydrates daily, which is approximately 8 slices of bread! If you’ve followed a low-carb diet in the past, chances are you felt a dip in energy due to lack of carbohydrates.
Food sources of carbohydrates: fruits, starchy vegetables, dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt), grains (rice, quinoa, millet, pasta, cereals, oats, etc.), and beans/legumes (chickpeas, lentils, etc).
Key Takeaway: Don’t fear carbohydrates. The body and brain require carbs for energy!
The building blocks of protein are amino acids. Adequate amino acids are essential for the proper functioning of the Central Nervous System (CNS), which includes the brain. Drastic increases or decreases in the amino acid, tryptophan, disrupts normal behavior and brain function. Too little tryptophan has been linked to depression and aggression.
Food sources of protein: animal sources such as meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood. Plant sources such as nuts/seeds, legumes, and soy products (tofu).
Key Takeaway: Adequate protein needs can be met through animal protein, plant-based protein, or both. Talk with a dietitian to determine your body’s unique protein needs.
Fun fact: the brain is roughly 60% fat. Fats help us absorb certain vitamins (like A, E, D, K) and serve as a protective layer for our organs. Additionally, fats help make up the myelin sheath that surrounds nerve fibers, which are the pathways that the brain uses to communicate with the rest of the body.
Food sources of healthy fats: avocados, nuts/seeds (flaxseed, pumpkin seeds), oils like olive/avocado oil, fatty fish such as salmon and tuna. Notably, omega-3 fatty acids have been studied in relation to regulating mood disorders.
Key takeaway: Don’t fear the fat. Healthful fats like those found in nuts, seeds, avocado, and fatty fish aid in brain health.
Check Point #4: Appetite
While hunger signals the biological need for food, appetite encompasses the desire for food. Perhaps you can remember a day that your desire for food (appetite) changed based on your mood.
For some, a stressful day at work may cause them to skip meals, with little to no thoughts regarding food. For others, stress enhances their desire for food, and their eating patterns shift to eating more than usual.
Appetite changes based on stress, hormones, medications, etc. Everyone responds a little differently to stress. It’s important to become aware of your habitual patterns.
- How do certain emotions and moods change your appetite and eating patterns?
If you notice the tendency to skip meals because of diminished appetite, perhaps set an alarm at mealtimes to remind you to stop what you are doing and eat. Or aim for at least small snacks during the day versus skipping meals altogether.
If you notice the tendency to eat more in response to emotions, check out this blog post on navigating emotional eating.
Key Takeaway: Even when appetite is diminished, the biological need for food remains.
4 Checkpoints Between Food and Mental Health
After reading through these checkpoints, which ones stood out to you? How might your current eating patterns be affecting your mental health? Let me know! We can always chat on a FREE discovery call. Or check out these additional resources:
- CHAARG put together this lovely Mental Health Resource Guide
- Find Mental Health Professionals in your area
- Work with a dietitian to establish a healthy relationship with food