Good food, Good mood
Kitty Finklea, RDN, LDN, AFAA-CPT
Most of us know eating healthy can decrease risk of heart disease and other medical problems, but did you know research also indicates how you eat can affect depression and anxiety?
Medications and therapy are first-line options for treating mental health, but evidence shows lifestyle changes such as managing stress, adequate sleep, and healthier eating habits can also boost well-being.
There has been an increased focus on nutrition for the brain, and a new area of study has developed called nutritional psychiatry. Interestingly, many of the foods linked with increased or decreased risk for major illnesses are also linked with brain health. For example, excess sugar and refined carbohydrates increase risk for heart disease as well as depression and anxiety. And on the flip side, more vegetables, fruits, whole grains and omega 3 fats decrease risk of heart disease as well as depression and anxiety.
The Standard American Diet, ironically known as SAD, is linked with higher levels of depression and anxiety and consists mainly of processed or fast foods along with processed grains, sugar, sweet drinks, and very little plant foods. The diet recommended for improving brain health and helping to decrease depression and anxiety is the Mediterranean Diet. And good news … if you’re vegetarian or vegan, and eat mostly whole plant foods, you’re already eating for the brain!
The Mediterranean Diet encourages the following:
Daily—fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, olive oil, herbs, and spices – these foods are high in fiber and nutrients for the brain.
Two or three times a week- fish and seafood for omega 3 fats which are good for the brain.
Throughout the week in moderation – poultry, eggs, and low-fat cheese or yogurt for protein.
Once or twice a month – small portions of red meat or sweets if you like these foods.
Often people eating a Mediterranean Diet have days each week when they don’t eat animal products at all. The bottom line is, eating more plants has been shown to help a variety of illnesses, including depression and anxiety, and this plan encourages plant foods every day.
The question is how do you go from a Standard American Diet to a Mediterranean Diet?
The best way to make a nutrition change is to start slow and build in more changes over time. The following are suggestions for how to implement this change.
Wean off soda, juice, sweet tea or other sweet drinks. Drink less over time, for example, cut servings in half or only have 1 serving a day at the time you crave it the most.
Drink more water. Invest in a water bottle and aim for half your body weight in ounces of water daily.
Increase fruits and vegetables. Add fruit or veggies to one meal or snack and increase over time to all meals and snacks.
Limit red meat. Try more poultry and seafood, and/or aim for one meatless meal a week.
Prep food ahead. Use your Crockpot or Instapot more often, cut up veggies and fruit after shopping, marinate seafood or chicken the night before, cook up a pot of brown rice or quinoa, roast veggies for more than one meal, make salad and put in a gallon plastic bag for the week.
Work on one meal or snack at a time. For example, if starting with breakfast – have peanut butter toast with banana, or oatmeal with fruit, or scrambled eggs with veggies and toast instead of sausage and bacon.
Switch to whole wheat or whole grains. Bread, crackers and pasta can be a great start.
Add beans to the menu. Incorporate legumes at least two or three times a week.
Experiment with herbs. Add fresh or dried parsley, oregano, basil, thyme, etc. to give foods delicious flavors.
When making lifestyles changes, backsliding is normal! If you fall off the plan, don’t feel guilt or shame, but find ways to get back on track. It takes about three weeks of healthier eating for most people to notice a change in depression and anxiety. Your brain and the rest of your body will thank you!