You already know what you eat affects how your body works and feels. Food can also have a big impact on your mood and your mental health. You’ve probably noticed that, if you eat junk food and empty calories, you may feel sluggish, unfocused, and even a bit blue – and when you eat healthy foods that are full of vitamins and nutrients, you feel mentally lifted and energized.
It’s not all in your head: there’s a strong connection between your diet and your mood. What you eat may not cause depression or anxiety, but it can make behavioral disorders worse. And just like food can help sharpen your brain, a healthy diet may help you feel more cheerful and positive.
So, if you’ve been feeling down and don’t understand why, it could be related to what you eat.
Why Sugar Isn’t So Sweet
Sugar isn’t just bad for your body and your teeth: eating too much sugar can increase the risk of depression and anxiety. Sugars, including the simple carbohydrates found in white bread, candy, and soft drinks, can increase inflammation in the body, which has been linked to increased pain and depression.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting sugar to no more than 6 teaspoons a day for women or 9 teaspoons a day for men. To give you an idea of how much that is, a can of full-sugar soda has 8 teaspoons of sugar while a small banana has 3 teaspoons. Check out these recommendations for healthy drinks that won’t spike your sugar.
Your Gut-Feeling Is Real
Over the past few years, scientists and nutritionists have studied the gastrointestinal system – also known as your gut. Your gut has more than a thousand types of bacteria and trillions of organisms that play an incredibly important role in many of the body’s processes. Ninety-five percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, a substance that helps regulate sleep, appetite, mood, and pain sensitivity, is made in your gut. It’s not that much of a stretch to say a lot of your mental outlook starts in your stomach.
A diet full of added sugars and highly processed foods (canned foods, fast food, most chips, and snack foods) can kill some of the good bacteria in your gut – which can make you want even more sugar. Sugar can temporarily spike your serotonin, but in the long run, it affects your gut’s ability to produce it.
So far, there has been hopeful news about probiotics, a beneficial bacterium that exists naturally in foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, and kombucha. In addition to improving the body’s immune system and helping to reduce bloating and gas, researchers believe that probiotics may help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. These foods are not a miracle cure, but they are healthy and delicious options to try.
Comfort Foods Aren’t Always the Answer
Sometimes, when a person feels down, they may reach for comfort foods that make them feel safe, happy, or protected. Comfort foods can be different from family to family and culture to culture, but typical American comfort foods include rich, calorie-heavy dishes like mac’n’cheese, fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, and other dishes that can give you a few minutes of bliss but leave you feeling worse off in the long run, due to added sugar. Eating large portions of fatty foods will also make you feel sluggish because your body has to work harder to digest the extra fat.
Comfort foods, and meals eaten in social situations where there’s friendship and festivities, can make you feel good, but you should still focus on making nutritional choices that will keep you feeling healthy and energetic. This list of food swaps can give you ideas about how to make some of your favorite holiday dishes a little healthier. And it’s always a good idea to add more fresh and healthy in-season produce to your diet.
Try Keeping a Food/Mood Journal
If you’re thinking about changing your diet to see if your mood improves, start by keeping a journal. Make a few notes daily about the foods that you stopped or started eating, the portion size, when you ate it, and then how you felt a few hours later. It doesn’t have to be long commitment, but you should commit to doing it every day for at least a few weeks so you can track your progress.
Sometimes a Healthy Diet Isn’t Enough
Eating right has so many benefits to your health, but sometimes it isn’t enough to pick you up if you’ve been feeling down for a long time. If you’ve been sad and you don’t know why, you could be going through an episode of depression. Depression is a real health problem that you shouldn’t ignore. Call AltaMed at (855) 425-1777 to learn more about our behavioral health services.