Learn how much diet and nutrition can impact your mental health

Diet and nutrition play a surprising part in one’s emotional wellness. What you eat can help you lower stress, deepen sleep, and feel calmer.

Mindful eating

The promise of diet as a mental health tool is so strong that a new, rapidly emerging field has been created called "nutritional psychiatry," according to a 2017 editorial in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. Those authors point out that, increasingly, research is finding links between a highly-processed diet and risk for depression and anxiety.

Why the connection? Here are some reasons why a healthy diet could lead to improved mental health:

  • Gut-brain power: An unhealthy diet negatively affects the beneficial bacteria in the gut. That's important, according to the American Psychological Association, which notes that your gut function influences brain chemistry, including pain perception, stress response, and emotions.
  • Lower inflammation: A diet that's high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and lean protein has been shown to lower inflammation. Not only does that decrease health risks, such as cardiovascular disease, but research suggests it also reduces the likelihood of developing depression over time.
  • More consumption of vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids: With the adoption of a diet that's less reliant on highly processed foods, you tend to get a higher amount of vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid and magnesium, as well as fatty acids found in foods like fish. Research suggests the dietary intake of these compounds is linked to lower depression and can even prevent the recurrence of depression for those who've had the condition in the past.
  • Better habit stacking: When you change one habit toward improved health, it's easier to keep building on that progress. A diet that makes you feel more balanced and energetic could lead to exercising more often, for example. When you have more energy, you may feel inspired to socialize more, start a gratitude journal, learn new skills, go hiking, drink more water, or quit smoking. Although each of these might feel minor on its own, research suggests lifestyle changes like these can be powerful for your mental health, and they keep building on each other over time.

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Kick off habit stacking by integrating exercise into your daily routine. A report that reviewed over 1,000 studies conducted over 30 years found significant associations between physical activity and mental health, particularly depression and anxiety. The findings were so robust that researchers believe exercise should be integrated into the prevention and treatment of mental illness and the promotion of mental wellness.

Find your starting point

Making massive changes to your diet and exercise mix can feel overwhelming, which may be one of the reasons that New Year's resolutions are notoriously tricky to maintain. Experts believe that habit change is often difficult because people tend to take an all-or-nothing approach.

Rather than throwing out everything in the fridge and starting from nothing, try a gentler strategy that builds healthier diet habits over time. Here are some ways you can get started:

  • Try one new-to-you vegetable this week
  • Replace a high-calorie, low-nutrient snack with a healthy one today
  • Write down what you eat or use an app so you can understand the nutrition behind what you're eating
  • Research one healthy new recipe to try
  • Notice your eating cues, like snacking when you're bored or watching TV
  • Recruit a friend to join you for a healthy eating challenge
  • Eat only when you're truly hungry

Alyssa_posts wrapped in blog (1)You can also talk to your healthcare provider about a referral to a dietitian or other nutrition professional, especially if you have a condition like diabetes or heart disease. Most of all, see diet changes are part of a lifelong opportunity to improve your mental health, one meal at a time.

Another smart strategy? If you're a member of Mass General Brigham Health Plan you can sign up for Healthier You, a 1-year program that offers personalized health coaching via phone and text. We designed this program to support individuals that are looking to lose weight, eat more healthfully, increase physical activity, and reduce the risk of conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

To register, members can contact Health Coach Lisa Perea by phone at 617-282-3149.

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