How to eat your way to wellness.
Most of us know that what we eat has an effect on how our body feels. For me, binges of sugar and other refined carbs (I'm only human) leave me feeling enlarged and lethargic the next day. When I'm eating well – as in, not eating a box of cookies for lunch – I feel like a damn gazelle. (Which is amusing given my tall and not-so-graceful presence.) And of course, the long-term effects are pretty good too: decreased risk of ending up with things like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
Food is our fuel, and it affects every part of our body – even the parts that are bit more esoteric than, say, our livers and hearts. Notably, write Joanne Bradbury and Megan Lee in The Conversation, healthy food is also good for our mental health and can decrease our risk of depression and anxiety.
Mental health disorders currently cost $2.5 trillion dollars globally for various therapies and medications, according to Bradbury and Lee, a number so large that it's hard to fathom. But with more and more research showing that
a change in what one eats can decrease the development of mental health issues, it seems like a prudent approach to try.
Of course there are plenty of people who need medication and this is not to say that they'd be fine if they started eating better – just that for many, changing the diet might be a great first approach for finding some emotional balance. And it's an idea that is gaining traction. As Bradbury and Lee point out, Australia’s clinical guidelines recommend addressing diet when treating depression.
Decreasing the consumption of medication has so many benefits; fewer side effects, less packaging and transportation of goods, less contamination of the wastewater, less spending, to name just a few things. For people whom a change in diet might mean feeling better psychologically, here are some of the nutrient groups that have been getting attention for increasing well-being.
There are two kinds of carbohydrates, simple and complex. Carbs are the body's fuel, but the two do not work the same. Simple carbs are those found in refined foods, think white flour and sugar. Complex carbs are those found in foods that are closer to their natural state, like in fruit and whole grains.
Simple carbs lead to blood sugar spikes – a high, then a crash. They create a rollercoaster of energy and mood, and are very easily addictive. Complex carbs, on the other hand, release glucose slowly and fuel the body in a nice measured manner.
Bradbury and Lee suggest that "increasing intake of complex carbohydrates and decreasing sugary drinks and snacks could be the first step in increased happiness and well-being." Speaking from personal experience, this is truth – cutting out simple carbs also does wonders for bloating and creaky joints, which is bound to help lighten the mood!
Antioxidants, the little darlings of the nutrition world, are like superheroes fighting against oxidative stress and inflammation in our bodies. Since most oxidative stress happens in the brain, feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin take a hit and can lead to a dip in mental health. Antioxidants can help fight this, as well as inflammation, in both the brain and the rest of the body. They are found most abundantly in brightly colored fruits and vegetables – which is why nutritionists remind us to "eat the rainbow." These foods are all-around brain food, too. Research has found that eating berries, for example, may help prevent age-related memory loss and other changes such as attention span, executive function, reasoning, spatial orientation, and processing speed.
Bradbury and Lee note that B vitamins play a large role in the production of our brain’s serotonin and dopamine. They write: "Vitamin B deficiency can result in a reduced production of happiness chemicals in our brain and can lead to the onset of low mood that could lead to mental health issues over a long period. Increasing B vitamins in our diet could increase the production of the feel good chemicals in our brain which promote happiness and well-being."
Folate can be found in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, breakfast cereals, and fortified grains and grain products. Vitamin B12 comes naturally in animal products – fish, poultry, meat, eggs, or dairy – as well as in fortified breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast, and enriched alternative milks. Good sources of B6 include fortified cereals, beans, poultry, fish, and some vegetables and fruits, especially dark leafy greens, papayas, oranges, and cantaloupe, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
Our bodies are good at churning out a number of fats that it needs, but alas, it hasn't figured out how to make omega-3 fatty acids – which play a bunch of protective roles, including brain health and helping those feel-good chemicals – dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine – work together. Research shows that omega 3s increase brain functioning and can ease the progression of dementia. And they may lessen symptoms of depression.
Fish and eggs are good sources of omega-3s, but one can get them from plants as well; think vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables. Mayo Clinic says that if you only get plant-based omega-3s, "you may also want to consider supplements, since the body doesn't always convert the plant-based form efficiently."
More and more research si revealing the unique relationship out gut biome has with our brain. As Bradbury and Lee write, "chemical messengers produced in our stomach influence our emotions, appetite and our reactions to stressful situations." Adding, "Prebiotics and Probiotics have been found to suppress immune reactions in the body, reduce inflammation in the brain, decrease depressed and anxious states and elevate happy emotions."
Prebiotics are dietary fibers found naturally in foods, and they are the stuff that probiotics, the gut's good bacteria, dine on. Food sources high in prebiotics include asparagus, bananas, artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, jicama, dandelion greens, chicory, whole grains, raw garlic, leeks and onions, to name just a few. Probiotics can be found in yoghurt, kefir, and fermented foods like kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi.