You are what you eat, in more ways than one. Diet can have a tremendous impact on a person’s health, regardless of their exercise and lifestyle habits. While it’s important to get your steps in and quit smoking, food habits can make a massive difference in your overall longevity and quality of life, especially with regards to body weight (and joint health), and heart health. But food also plays an important role in every other process within the body, including countless daily chemical interactions in the brain. How you feel in your body and your overall physical health can affect you mentally, but it’s important not to underestimate the direct effect that good nutrition – and the lack thereof – has on the human psyche.
Why Does Diet Matter?
Research in the topic of diet and mental health yields several interesting results. The pathways through which diet can affect a person’s mental health include through:
- Gut microbiome and its effects on mood.
- Obesity, metabolic syndrome, stress, and depression.
- Pro-inflammatory foods and their effects on pain and depression.
- Malnutrition and how it affects mood and mental health.
- How chronic and acute vitamin deficiencies affect mood.
- The relationship between mental health and appetite.
- Disordered eating and mental health.
- Food and meals as a positive social event or opportunity for mindfulness.
- And more.
Our nutrition can have both a positive and negative effect on mental health. Certain diets correlate with poorer mental health outcomes, with other diets correlate with better mental health outcomes.
Nutrients and the Adolescent Brain
There are studies supporting diets richer in polyunsaturated fat, lean protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and whole grains, while the inverse is true of diets rich in refined carbohydrates, omega-6 fatty acids, saturated fat, and trans-fat. Certain vitamins play a critical role in mood and mental health. Vitamin D deficiency, which is particularly common in teens who experience a lack of sunlight, can affect skin health, bone health, and depression. Other common nutrient deficiencies that correlate directly with poor mental health include omega-3 fatty acid, folic acid, and vitamin B12.
Among minerals, common deficiencies which can impact mood and mental health include iron, chromium, lithium, selenium, and zinc. It is smart to consider talking to your doctor about your current dietary trends and taking a blood test to identify any nutritional deficiencies you might have, if at all. While it’s generally safe to supplement minerals and vitamins, it should also be noted that bioavailability from supplements tends to be lower than the micronutrient value of food. A balanced diet will do you better than maintaining bad habits and taking a multivitamin. But a good diet and a multivitamin is best.
In short, cut out trans-fat, limit saturated fat, and avoid refined sugars. Opt for lean meats, eat plenty of vegetables, and foods high in vitamins and minerals. Consider omega-3 supplementation if you don’t consume a lot of fish. If that sounds like advice you’ve heard before, it’s because it probably is. Many customers are generally aware of what is and isn’t healthy – and the fundamentals will always make the biggest impact, both on your physical and mental health.
Is It Expensive to Eat Right?
People who struggle with mental health issues generally have a much poorer diet as a result of their issues. They may have a hard time preparing meals or focusing on cooking and nutrition. They’re more likely to reach for foods that satiate their current cravings or are most readily available on the smallest budget. There is also a socio-economic aspect to consider, where depression and other mental health issues correlate with poverty, and poor nutrition.
But that does not discount that switching to a better diet leads to a marked improvement in mental and physical health and that eating healthy does not have to be expensive. Cook larger portions on the weekends and eat them over several meals. Focus on healthy staples and non-perishables, such as yams and brown rice. Source local vegetables for cheap and stick to supermarket brands. Buy dry goods in bulk. Reap the benefits of healthy canned goods, like canned beans and canned fish.
If your appetite and budget are low, you can supplement your daily protein requirements with whey, or a protein supplement you’re comfortable with. Look online for local organizations that combat food waste by selling irregular vegetables and produce that the supermarket doesn’t accept, like Imperfect Foods. While it does take a little bit of planning and preparation to eat more homecooked meals, it’s isn’t impossible, even on a tight schedule and strict budget.
Don’t Worry About Superfoods
There are plenty of vested interests in the world of nutrition, and lots of money in food marketing. These can confuse customers about what is and isn’t healthy, and what the “ideal diet” really looks like. No matter what you might have read, never forget that the fundamentals matter most. What you eat, how you eat, and when you eat is a matter of individual preference and circumstance.
While some foods are objectively healthier than others, portions also matter. A bit of cheese or a few cuts of cured meat won’t make you depressed. Indulging in some ice cream or chocolate isn’t guaranteed to trigger your anxiety. Unless you have a history of eating disorders and certain food triggers, feel free to create your own balanced diet based on what’s available to you, and the most affordable local options for a nutrient-rich meal plan.
All About the Fundamentals
We eat on a daily basis, generally more than twice, and sometimes with snacks in between. Food is something every human cares about, and it’s an integral identifier for culture and tradition across the globe. All festivities and occasions are marked by a special meal, for example, and both food choices and fasting have incredibly important religious connotations. Food matters: what you eat, how you eat it, and who you eat it with.
Good food habits start young. While genes matter, underlying health can always be improved with a balanced diet, many staples of which are inexpensive and readily available. Teaching ourselves and our children to prepare and enjoy making healthy meals can confer vital life-long benefits while becoming an opportunity to boost a teen’s self-esteem through skills building.
A healthy diet is never temporary, and it should never be bland or boring. Keep it interesting and fresh, learn to play with new ingredients, try out different cuisines and spices, pick up quick-cooking cheats to spruce up your favorite dishes, and keep learning ways to make living and eating healthy fun and interesting, rather than a chore for physical and mental longevity.