You (Really) Are What You Eat — Here’s How Food Affects Your Mental Health

Ditch the sugar.

by Natalia Lusinski
Originally Published: 
how diet affects mental health

At one point or another, you’ve probably heard the old adage, “You are what you eat.” And, according to research, it’s actually true. Our diet truly affects our mental health — even if we don’t realize it. If you think about it, when you’re not in a good mood, do you reach for comfort food, like ice cream or some carrot sticks? If you reach for the ice cream, you’re not alone. Although the sweet treat may make you feel better in the moment, research shows that, ultimately, it will only contribute to your less-than-stellar mindset — and then the cycle will continue. Inadvertently, you’ll be “feeding” your not-great mood (no pun intended) and still end up in said not-great mood.

“A well-balanced diet full of healthy choices may not solve a poor mental health status, but it definitely can help improve our mood,” Nutritionist Tamarah Ulysse, who works at the EatWell Exchange, tells TZR. “Although external factors definitely play a role with our mental health, what we ingest can contribute to it, too. Our body is like a car — it needs fuel to run, and food is that fuel. Just like a car, our body can run on any ‘fuel,’ but the premium fuel will have us feeling our best and help maintain our system properly.” Ahead, Ulysse and other experts weigh in on how your diet can impact your mental health — and what you can do to remedy it.

Mental Health Is Tied To Gut Health

Fun fact: Did you know that your mental health is linked to your gut health? To that end, the gut is often referred to as the “second brain” since a part of our body’s nervous system is in our gut, the enteric nervous system (ENS). It relies on the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters that are found in the central nervous system. So this “second brain” then communicates with the brain in our head and plays a pivotal role when it comes to our health (such as the prevalence of diseases) and mental health.

Dr. Haley Perlus, PhD, sport and performance psychologist, says that what we eat can promote the production of bacteria, and that can influence the neurotransmitters carrying messages from the gut to the brain. “An unhealthy diet can eventually cause mood fluctuations, making one more prone to anxiety and depression,” she tells TZR in an email. Research, too, has found that people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional bowel problems are more likely to develop anxiety and depression. Researchers have also discovered that when the gastrointestinal system is irritated, it may send signals to the part of the central nervous system that’s responsible for mood changes, the ENS. So this is a great example of how “you are what you eat” comes into play.

How Certain Foods & Drinks Impact Your Mental Health

Perlus says that what we eat and drink can impact our mental health in several ways. “Sugar and processed foods, for example, can momentarily give you a ‘sugar high’ and have you feel ‘good’ by causing a temporary spike in dopamine,” she says. “However, this ‘high’ eventually leads to a ‘crash’ that can affect you more so.” These foods can then cause inflammation throughout the body and brain — and this can contribute to elevated levels of anxiety and depression, she explains. Plus, these foods can weaken our immune system. “Once we feel down, we may reach for those processed or high-calorie foods to make us feel better — or skip meals altogether,” she adds. “This can lead to a poor cycle that can be difficult to end, but not impossible.”

Alcohol, too, can have negative consequences since it is a depressant. “Although it is often viewed as a stimulant that can boost confidence, mood, and even improve one’s social skills, it can actually increase symptoms of depression,” says Perlus. However, with the sober curious movement becoming more and more popular, people can still “drink” — but alcohol-free drinks instead. Plus, many of the sober curious brands contain little or no sugar, which is an added bonus. Perlus adds that caffeine is another mood-boosting addition to one’s diet that can temporarily boost alertness, overall energy, and feelings of well-being. “However, too much caffeine intake can lead to unpleasant side effects, such as increased anxiety, irritability, trouble sleeping, and stomach issues,” she explains. “Therefore, having caffeine in moderation can help avoid hard ‘crashes’ once it wears off, as well as reduce anxiety.” And with all the coffee alternatives on the market these days, it’s actually easier to lessen — or give up — caffeine than you think it is.

If You’re Feeling Off, Try Switching Up Your Diet

Ulysse recommends that if you’re feeling tired and sluggish more often, examine your food choices and make changes where you can. “These changes can look like a decrease in added sugar, switching from processed foods to whole foods, reducing saturated fats, and reducing the amount of alcohol consumed,” she says. “I'd also recommend that people increase their water intake, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and, most importantly, get at least eight hours of sleep and do not skip meals. This will allow you to regulate your blood sugar, remain energized, and improve your mood.” She says that when someone’s diet mostly consists of whole grains, that allows them to stay full longer — thus, they’ll have more energy throughout the day. “In the same way, a poor diet of only added sugars, saturated fats, and high sodium can contribute to a poor mental health status,” she says.

Perlus agrees about making healthier eating choices to help improve your mental state. “If someone feels lethargic or depressed, part of their symptoms can result from a poor diet,” she says. “A more nutritious diet can bring about an overall happier outlook and an improved ability to focus with fewer mood fluctuations.” For starters, she says you can always up your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables to give you nutrient-packed boosts of energy and improve gut health, and increase foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon.

If you’re always in a rush in our hustle culture world and turn to processed, “quick and easy” foods, changing your diet can help increase healthier brain function and overall digestive health, she adds. “Rather than reaching for quick and easy ‘go-to’ foods, prep healthier options or have pre-made meals delivered,” she says. Like Ulysse, Perlus says to up your water intake, too, which is essential for optimal functioning of the body. “Although water doesn’t directly provide energy in the form of calories, it does aid the processes in the body that do, helping boost energy levels,” she says. “So sipping on water — instead of coffee or soda — is a simple change that can make you feel much better.”

Harvard Health, too, suggests that you start paying attention to how you feel after consuming different foods. This doesn’t necessarily mean immediately afterwards, but the next day, and so on. Then, you can try a “clean” diet — eliminating all processed foods and sugar — for two to three weeks and see how that makes you feel. As you reintroduce foods one by one, you can monitor how those impact you, and even journal about it. Do you feel more energetic and happier? Less so? Oftentimes, people report feeling better — physically and emotionally — when eating “clean.” And when they go back to having sugar and processed foods, which increase inflammation, they feel worse.

Lijana Shestopal, founder of SportsAcupuncturist.com, notes that food is one of the most powerful ways we can take charge of our health. “One should eat for their body type, current ailment, and season,” she tells TZR. She says this means eating more leafy greens, sprouts, and fresh herbs in the spring while eating more warming foods, such as stews, soups, and pickled vegetables, in the fall. “The caveat is that there is not one diet or eating regimen that is great for everyone,” she says. “But our internal environment has to be balanced out with our external environment.”

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