Can what you eat affect your mental health?

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Regarding mental health, comfort food may not be as comforting as the name lets on.

Fresh homegrown vegetables are a wonderful way to supplement in healthy choices. Photo by Joshua Sperry.

“Here comes the airplane!” parents say as they attempt to finesse leafy greens into stubborn toddler mouths. “When is dessert?” the moody toddler retorts. “Once you finish your vegetables,” the parents respond. Does this narrative sound familiar? To most people, it should. Although leafy greens and mixed vegetables are not as enticing as sugary desserts to young children, research proves that mom and dad were wise to encourage healthy eating habits.

“From a young age, we’re taught that eating well helps us look and feel our physical best. What we’re not always told is that good nutrition significantly affects our mental health, too. A healthy, well-balanced diet can help us think clearly and feel more alert. It can also improve concentration and attention span,” state staff writers from Sutterhealth.org.

Eating well for mental health

The nutrients in the foods we eat provide the foundation for the structures of every little cell in our bodies, which we have trillions of. These cells are constantly repairing and rebuilding our bodies, and these processes directly correlate to our diets, explains Michael Ormsbee, a professor of Health and Nutrition at Florida State University. 

Mindful eating

With all the responsibilities and obligations we have as students in and outside of class, it is easy to replace breakfast with a sugary granola bar, or grab fast food for lunch. When we are stressed, busy or depressed, sugary and processed foods are often what we reach for, but consuming them often leads to inflammation throughout the body, explains the staff writers at Healthline.com. It can be a hard habit to break, but opting for dark leafy vegetables, plenty of fruits, nuts, legumes, and healthy fats instead of processed foods will give you the nutrients your brain needs to be healthy.

A healthy gut

According to Siri Carpenter, a research author at the American Psychological Association (APA), gut health is one of the most important factors in mental health. There’s a strong connection between our intestines and our brain that are physically linked via the vagus nerve, where the two communicate and send messages to one another. “Gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, which influences both mood and GI activity,” explains Carpenter. While the gut can influence the emotional behavior in the brain, the brain can alter the bacteria in the gut with stress that suppresses the beneficial bacteria. It’s a delicate dance of hormonal balance.

Happy mind

While diet isn’t the only thing that affects mental health, it plays a large role. Dr. Gabriela Cora, a board-certified psychiatrist, stated in an article by Aetna that,“When you stick to a diet of healthy food, you’re setting yourself up for fewer mood fluctuations, an overall happier outlook and an improved ability to focus.” While it’s perfectly okay to indulge in your favorite comfort foods from time to time, paying attention to how you feel when you eat and making sure you’re getting well-balanced meals is a step closer to a happy, healthier mind.

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