The role of healthy eating in building mental strength

The age old adage, ‘you are what you eat’, if not taken literally, has a lot of truth to it. We all know that food is fuel, and that our diet has an immense impact on factors like our weight and risk for developing diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and more. How about food’s effect on our mental state? Can the food we consume affect our mood and regulate our emotions? In one word – YES!

The foods that we ingest have the powerful ability to change our mental state – and we’re not just talking about food regret. We all know the feeling that we get after having that extra scoop of ice cream or burger with a side of fries, but the actual nutrient content of our food choices can have an immense impact on our mental well-being.  Not only does the perception of what is healthy versus unhealthy affect our state of mind, but the nutritional profile of the food as well. So, what should we be eating to support mental strength?

First and foremost, staying properly hydrated is essential for mental toughness. Even mild dehydration can cause headaches, dizziness, fatigue and decrease our ability to concentrate. This in itself can lead to poor choices in the kitchen, perpetuating a dangerous cycle, as we’re most vulnerable when we’re tired. Although many swear by caffeine for mental clarity and to wake up in the morning, it can actually have the opposite effect. Caffeine not only promotes dehydration, but feelings of anxiety as well, especially for those more prone to it.

Another food that stimulates mental toughness and reduces the symptoms of depression and anxiety is fermented foods with active cultures, also known as probiotics. These healthy bacteria have been proven to reduce the presence of stress hormones in the body. Fermented foods include kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha among others. They are also excellent sources of vitamin B12, calcium and tryptophan (an amino acid that’s involved in the production of serotonin – a neurotransmitter known to stabilize mood, which we’ll learn more about a little later on). Most serotonin production takes place in the stomach, meaning the happier the gut, the happier the person!

A diet that contains the appropriate amount of Vitamin D has also been strongly linked to an improved mood. Individuals who are vitamin D deficient (especially during the long, dark and cold winter months) can develop a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder. The lack of sun is said to be the main culprit, however foods high in this vitamin such as eggs and fatty fish can help to alleviate these symptoms. Fatty fish are not only high in Vitamin D, but also contain a healthy portion of omega-3 fatty acids, which have mood-stabilizing properties.

Up next on the mood boosting list are carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates register low on the glycemic index, meaning they release energy slowly, preventing that spike and drop in blood sugar (and your mood). Simple carbohydrates on the other hand (think, slice of white bread) do exactly that. Glucose, which comes from carbohydrates, is the main source of energy for our brain, so we need to ensure that our noggins are receiving a steady and consistent supply. If we want our brain to work optimally, we need to fuel it properly (think nuts).

Protein is another macronutrient that is essential in maintaining a strong mental state. Protein is made up of different amino acids; there are 20 altogether, and jointly they are known as the building blocks of protein. Amino acids are essential for everyday metabolic processes. Tryptophan, in particular, is the amino acid that is crucial for mood regulation as it aids in the production of serotonin, known as the ‘joy chemical’. A diet rich in a variety of lean proteins such as legumes, lean meats and eggs will help to keep levels of this neurotransmitter balanced.

Now that we’re familiar with the types of foods that support a strong and healthy mind, what should we stay away from? Alcohol and junk food (meaning high fat, sugar, salt and simple carbohydrate foods) can interfere with the production of serotonin, and directly affect our mood. Low-calorie diets have also been said to have damaging effects on our temperament. Many of the pathways in our brains that relate to hunger and mood are connected. Unsurprisingly, when we are hungry, our mood is negatively impacted. If we don’t eat enough and our blood sugar levels drop, the body will be prompted to release adrenaline. This stress hormone works to release energy that is stored in the muscles, with the unfortunately side effect of leaving you feeling anxious and apprehensive.

We are so fortunate to live in a day and age where information is so prevalent and food choices abundant. A healthy diet will not only give you a strong body, but a strong mind. We now know that proper nutrition is indisputably linked to a good mood, so next time you’re feeling low, we hope you think twice about reaching for that bag of crisps or bar of chocolate. Your waistline and mind will thank you!

 

The Author: Daina Kenins

Daina is a lover of all things health & wellness related; a health food connoisseur, an avid marathon runner, a certified Vinyasa Yoga Teacher and a spin studio manager. She is ambassador for healthy eating and loves to create and share recipes on her instagram page @thepaleobean.