Why is nutrition important for mental health?
Nutrition plays a crucial role in maintaining overall health and well-being, including the health of the mind. What we eat can affect our mood, energy levels, and ability to focus. It can even influence the development and severity of specific mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Understanding the relationship between nutrition and mental health can help us make informed choices about what to eat for a healthy mind.
What nutrients are best for mental health?
One of the most critical nutrients for mental health is omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fats, found primarily in fish and seafood, are crucial in brain function and development. They reduce inflammation and improve the brain’s nerve cells’ health, which can help improve mood and cognitive function. Foods rich in omega-3s include salmon, tuna, sardines, and anchovies, which are the sources that come to mind for most people. However, omega-3s are not limited to fish sources. Did you know that chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts are also excellent sources of omega-3s? While the thought of consuming raw walnuts sounded great in theory, I struggled when it came time to eat them. I resisted; they went rancid, aka getting “avocadoed” before I finished them. What did I do? I did what anyone focused on getting the nutrients would do – I started adding them to a shake each day, and boom, you didn’t even have to force yourself thru eating something with tree bark texture, not that I’ve consumed it.
Another vital nutrient for mental health is B vitamins, particularly B6, B9, and B12. These vitamins produce neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that regulate mood, energy levels, and cognitive function. Foods rich in B vitamins include leafy green vegetables, lean meats, nuts, and seeds.
Iron is also essential for mental health, as it produces neurotransmitters and the health of the brain’s nerve cells. Iron-deficiency anemia, a condition caused by low levels of iron, can lead to fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Iron-rich foods include red meat, poultry, and leafy green vegetables.
Eating a balanced diet
Eating a diet high in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, can help to improve mood and cognitive function. It is also beneficial to have a balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, which provide essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support overall health.
Diets high in processed, sugary, and saturated fats are linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety. In addition to eating a healthy diet, paying attention to when we eat is essential. Skipping meals or irregular eating can lead to low blood sugar, which can cause irritability, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. Eating regular, well-balanced meals can help to maintain stable blood sugar levels and improve mood and cognitive function. Starting each meal with protein goes a long way in stabilizing my cravings and keeping me from overeating. If you do this for every meal, managing your food intake becomes easier.
Maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular exercise can also help to improve overall health and well-being, including mental health. Paying attention to portion sizes and not overeating is essential, but this will come with time. As additional motivation, being overweight or obese has been linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety.
How to eat healthy on a budget
You decided you’re ready to change and improve your diet but are concerned you can’t afford it. You’d be surprised. Fortunately, you are among many aspiring to find healthier meals, and options abound. Start small; if you are accustomed to eating certain foods when you go out to eat, why not just start making them at home? With the seemingly endless volume of quick meal cooking tutorials on YouTube, it’s easier than ever to get started. While eventually, you may want to upgrade to premium kitchenware, it takes little to start. You can cook a lot with a pan and a pot, not to mention the oven. Don’t think you need to go out and buy hundreds of dollars of new cooking equipment. Nutritious eating is very approachable; it simply requires initiative and a desire to change. Being conscious of how nutrition and mental health work together doesn’t mean it has to break your bank account.
Challenges to eating healthy
An obstacle in today’s society arises from the abundance of tempting convenience foods and easy delivery access. Chances are, you’re repeatedly accustomed to food ordering routines from the same places. Options that are convenient and fast but often full of sugar and carbohydrates. Such meals result in a low ROI for the calories consumed and money spent. Why not do the same with foods that are better for you? Next time you are hungry, consider searching “healthy food near me” instead. Companies like Uber Eats and DoorDash can also deliver nutritious meals to your doorstep. It all starts with one meal, one new step in a healthier direction.
Another challenge to healthy eating is consistency. This is where I struggled initially, and I’ve seen many others waiver.
Many view dieting changes as an all-or-nothing pursuit. While that attitude may help you start, it is not sustainable; more is needed. This is where self-compassion comes into play. Give yourself credit for small wins, one healthy meal a week is better than none. Here’s the thing I wish someone would’ve told me about healthy eating sooner – The more you incorporate regular exercise and healthy eating into your routine, the more you want of it. Granted, it could take you months, more like years, to reach that point, but you are here reading this article because something in your life prompted you to want to change. You searched the web and took the initiative to start reading about it. That same initiative can be applied to making dietary changes.
As you can see, nutrition and mental health work together. Eating a diet rich in omega-3s, B vitamins, iron, and fruits and vegetables can help improve mood and cognitive function. Eating regular, well-balanced meals, paying attention to portion sizes, and avoiding overeating can help to maintain a healthy weight and improve overall health and well-being. It is always wise to consult a healthcare professional before drastically changing your diet.