You are what you eat.
This old adage speaks to the fact that our dietary choices play a crucial role in shaping our physical health and vitality, as well as our mental health and cognitive function. Not only does food affect our mental health, but the opposite is also true. Our moods can significantly affect our eating patterns and the foods we eat.
Let’s look at the interconnected relationship between food and mental health, the emotional factors influencing our diets, foods promoting well-being, and strategies to eat well and enjoy good health and vitality.
How Your Emotional State Affects Your Relationship with Food
From childhood, your parents and caregivers play a major role in shaping your attitudes toward food. If your parents modeled healthy eating behaviors, encouraged a diverse and nutritious diet, taught you emotional awareness from a young age, helped you recognize and label your feelings, and encouraged you to express and regulate your emotions — one tall order! — you are more likely to have a good relationship with food. This likely leads to good overall health.
However, even the most conscientious parenting can’t protect you from all the environmental and emotional experiences you are confronted with as you age. From school and social media exposure when you’re young to hormonal changes in later life, life provides plenty of opportunities to abandon healthy eating patterns.
Occasional missteps may have no impact on your physical or mental health. However, if your emotions are chronically dysregulated and you frequently find yourself overeating in response to your emotions (i.e. emotional eating) or you lose your appetite for long periods of time, you may be developing eating patterns that are detrimental to your health. The sooner you understand and correct these patterns, the better you will probably feel.
During times of stress, anxiety, anger, sadness, boredom, or other emotional turmoil, it's common to reach for food in search of comfort or distraction. This emotional eating is a common response to life's ups and downs and can happen at any age.
Unfortunately, you rarely reach for a few carrot sticks or an apple when you’re eating emotionally. Instead, the foods that appeal are often snacks like ice cream, cookies, chips, fast food, and other foods high in refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and artificial additives. Research suggests that different emotions can influence the foods you choose when feeling out of sorts.
- Stressed eating: If you’re feeling stressed, your body may produce excess cortisol, a hormone that provides energy so your body can react to the stressful situation. Cortisol has been found to increase appetite and possibly the craving for simple sugars and fats.REF#2723
- Depressed eating: If you are feeling sad, you may temporarily fill the emotional void with the pleasures of eating, a respite from the heaviness of your emotion. It’s possible that a sudden chocolate craving might strike when you're feeling down. Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, which has been shown to affect mood positively, becomes an enticing choice when seeking a way out of the blues.REF#2724
- Bored or frustrated eating: When you have nothing better to do, or you’re frustrated with work, you might turn to the kitchen for entertainment, not necessarily due to hunger but as a distraction.
Emotional eating has different causes and results, but it always involves eating too many things that aren’t good for you when eaten in large amounts. While indulging in comfort foods may provide temporary relief or pleasure, overdoing it can leave you feeling guilty, ashamed, or frustrated, contributing to a downward spiral of negativity.
Loss of Appetite
While some emotions result in overeating, intense feelings of loss, grief, or trauma can dramatically suppress your appetite. These paralyzing emotions can disturb normal hunger signals and make eating feel pointless or unappealing.
Feeling anxious can disrupt appetite in a different manner. The jittery sensation in the pit of the stomach can dull hunger cues or create an aversion to eating altogether.
Prolonged undereating due to emotional turmoil can lead to nutrient deficiencies that exacerbate mood disturbances.
If you believe you have developed a negative relationship with food, it’s important to have compassion for yourself and your food choices and not beat yourself up. Negative emotions can be overwhelming, and food is one accessible way to self-soothe. But if your emotions are chronically dysregulated or you find yourself binge eating frequently, it may be worth exploring those feelings with a counselor or mental health professional.
How Body Image and Self-Esteem Affect Eating Habits
In a culture inundated with media images of perfectly sculpted athletic bodies, it's no surprise that negative body image can impact your eating habits. If you’re not 100 percent satisfied with your body, you may restrict your eating to lose weight.
You may start to label certain foods as "good" or "bad" based on their perceived impact on your appearance. While your initial motivation might be positive, restrictive eating can quickly spiral into an unhealthy preoccupation with food and weight and keep you from enjoying other aspects of life. It can create a cycle of deprivation and overindulgence that is hard to break.
Restrictive eating also leads to poor nutrition, denying you the nutrients you need for physical and cognitive function as well as emotional stability. It can exacerbate mood swings and irritability and affect your overall mental health.
A balanced and nourishing relationship with food starts by recognizing that your body is unique and worthy of respect and that the most important thing you can do is work to keep it healthy. Prioritizing nourishment, self-acceptance, and mental health is ultimately one of the most empowering things you can do for yourself.
7 Foods to Eat for Good Mental Health
Many studies have been done to determine the optimal diet for mental health. Research indicates that traditional diets that feature nutrient-dense whole foods — the Mediterranean diet being the most popular — can positively impact mood and mental health.REF#2725
Nutrient-dense whole foods are considered brain foods, which contain building blocks for the monoamine neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, important hormones for regulating emotion. These foods are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, contain antioxidants, support a healthy inflammatory response, and help create a healthy gut microbiome. Foods that are good for the brain are usually also good for your mental health and overall wellness.
Let’s look at the foods you should put in your grocery cart to create a great mental health diet.
Brain Foods that Promote Good Mental Health:
- Fatty fish: Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines) are critical for facilitating a number of essential processes in the central nervous system.3 They support a healthy inflammatory response and increase blood flow in the brain, and are associated with improved mood and cognitive function.
- Grass-fed beef: Unlike conventionally raised beef, grass-fed beef contains omega-3 fatty acids. It has a much lower concentration than fish but can be a healthy option for eating beef.
- Whole grains: Brown rice, quinoa, oats, and whole wheat have B vitamins that are essential for brain development and help maintain steady blood sugar levels, which in turn helps maintain stable mood and energy levels.
- Fruits and vegetables: A diet rich in fruits and vegetables provides essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support brain health and support a healthy inflammatory response, both of which are crucial for good mental health.
- Nuts and seeds: These are excellent sources of healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals that contribute to cognitive function and emotional well-being. They also contain magnesium, which may play a role in regulating mood.REF#2726
- Lean proteins: Protein-rich foods like lean grass-fed beef, pork, poultry, eggs, and legumes provide amino acids that are essential for the production of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which regulate mood and emotions.
- Probiotics: Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi contain probiotics that promote a healthy gut microbiome, which has been linked to improved mental health.
Foods to Avoid or Eat Infrequently
- Processed foods: Highly processed foods often contain additives, unhealthy fats, and high levels of sugar and salt, which are unhealthy overall and can negatively impact mood and cognitive function.REF#2727
- Sugar: Excessive sugar intake can cause mood swings due to its impact on blood sugar levels and inflammation.REF#2728
- Trans fats: Trans fats, commonly found in fast food and packaged snacks, have been associated with a higher risk of poor mental health.REF#2729
- Artificial sweeteners: Some studies suggest a link between artificial sweeteners and mood disorders, although more research is needed to understand this connection fully.REF#2730
- Highly caffeinated beverages: While moderate caffeine intake can have cognitive benefits, excessive consumption can lead to stress, jitteriness, and disrupted sleep, all of which affect mental well-being.REF#2731
- Alcohol: Excessive alcohol consumption can disrupt brain chemistry, exacerbate mental health issues and impair cognitive function.
- Sodium: High sodium diets may negatively impact blood pressure and cardiovascular health, which can affect brain health and cognitive function.
- Foods you have sensitivities to: Certain foods or additives can trigger mood disturbances for some individuals.
Creating a healthy diet involves prioritizing foods rich in nutrients that support mental well-being and cognitive function. Save processed foods, sugary snacks, and excessive caffeine for rare occasions.
To set yourself up for success, start with the foods you already like and slowly add in new foods. Incorporate a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to ensure you’re getting the most nutritious meal since different colors offer different nutrients.
Refer to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 – 2025 to make meal planning easier. Divide your plate into sections with the following food categories in each section:
- ½ of the plate should be vegetables and fruits, varying the type and color of veggies daily, with more veggies than fruit in that half
- Fill ¼ of the plate with whole grains
- Fill the other ¼ of the plate with lean protein
Over time, you’ll realize that your cravings for junk food are all but gone, and when you’re hungry, you’re reaching for food that will actually make you happy.
Cultivating a Healthy Relationship with Food For Good Mental Health
Changing your relationship with food can be a major challenge, especially if you’ve been locked in a battle with food for most of your life. To foster a more harmonious relationship between your mental health and the food choices you make, consider these strategies that emphasize self-care and emotional well-being:
- Develop a positive relationship with food: Avoid labeling foods as "good" or "bad." This can reduce the association between specific foods and emotional relief.
- Adopt mindful eating practices: Take time to savor your food, pay attention to hunger and fullness cues, and recognize the emotional and sensory aspects of eating.
- Build resilience: Instead of trying to fill a void by eating, build up your strength and resilience through regular physical exercise, mindfulness practices such as yoga and deep breathing, and meditation.
- Share your thoughts: Healthy emotional expression can help regulate your emotions and reduce your reliance on food for emotional comfort. Share your thoughts with trusted friends or family or write them in a journal.
- Self-care: Prioritizing self-care reinforces the connection between emotional well-being and nourishing food choices. Engage in activities that bring joy and relaxation to help you gain a more positive outlook. Adequate sleep, regular physical activity, and stress management can positively influence your mental health and eating behaviors.
- Develop cultural and media literacy: Improving your critical thinking skills regarding media messages about body image and food may help you resist societal pressures that may contribute to emotional eating.
- Seek professional support: You don’t have to go it alone. Seeking guidance from a mental health professional and/or registered dietitian can help you create a food plan you can follow. These experts can also help you understand your triggers and manage emotions that may contribute to emotional eating.
Incorporating these strategies into your daily routine can empower you to make conscious food choices that honor your body and mind and promote overall vitality.
Changing your eating patterns is never easy when you’ve relied on comfort food for most of your life. But learning to eat for health is one of the best investments you can make in yourself. Give yourself the tools to thrive physically, mentally, and emotionally so you can engage fully in your daily activities, pursue your goals, and enjoy higher overall vitality and happiness.
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