There's mounting evidence of a strong connection between how you eat and your mental health. If you Google "nutrition and mental health" (which I don't recommend you do), you'll likely fall into a rabbit hole of confusing and, much of the time, misleading information.
Not unlike many other areas of nutrition, the topic of food and mental health has become overly complicated, often overlooking the foundational pieces of healthful eating.
The thing is, focusing on basic foundational eating habits is more beneficial to your mental health than any advice you'll find on Google. And the truth is that many people are undereating or cutting out foods unnecessarily that likely will wind up leaving them in a worse state of mental health. The key is to consider, "What can I add to my diet?" rather than "What should I be taking away?".
Let's look at the foundational pieces of eating for your mental health:
- Structured eating. Consider a campfire. When you want to light a campfire, what do you need? Oxygen, kindling, and a spark. Once you get that fire going, can you leave it be and expect it to keep burning all day? No way! You must continue to feed it fuel, every few hours to keep it burning consistently. Eating something when you wake up and eating every 3-5 hours thereafter is key to providing your body a consistent source of fuel and helps to keep your mood at an even keel throughout your day.
- Adequate dietary fat. Despite fat getting a bad rap over the years, low-fat consumption is surprisingly associated with increased levels of depression. Eating less than 45 grams of fat each day can worsen your mental health. Moderate fat intake is around 65 grams of fat daily. Sound like a lot? This would mean having a source of added fat twice a day and fat that is naturally found in foods like proteins, carbohydrates, and dairy products. Sources of added fats include cooking oils, salad dressings, butter, and nut butters. Plus, consider this: fat is essential in maintaining the cell structure of the brain's communication network, therefore fat is necessary for brain function.
- Adequate carbohydrates. These days, carbohydrates get even a worse rap than fat does. However, your brain cannot store glucose so it needs a constant supply. Carbohydrates, found in grains, starchy vegetables, beans, fruits, juices, baked goods, and milk and yogurt get broken down into glucose which can be used right away for energy by your brain, muscles, and nervous system. Low intake of carbohydrates is associated with brain fog, depression, fatigue, and sluggishness. If you do not get enough carbohydrates, your body will break down the proteins in muscles, body tissues, and organs for energy. For maximum functioning, your body needs about 50% of your total daily intake as carbohydrates.
- Adequate protein. Protein is made up of amino acids, the building blocks. Amino acids are also the building blocks of neurotransmitters, which is how your cells communicate messages about sleep, appetite, and mood. Protein should be between 15-20% of your total daily intake. Beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, meat and poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products are great sources of protein.
Eating for your mental health is straightforward; structured eating and adequate amounts of fat, carbohydrates and protein in your diet are an important and complementary piece to all the factors that go into your mental health.
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