Can What You Eat Affect Your Mental Health?

Remember the saying ‘You are what you eat?’ Well, it also rings true for your mood.

Nutrition plays an important role in physical health, but it also affects your behavior and brain function.

“The brain is a metabolically active organ that has a high demand for nutrients,” said Jude Clapper, a registered dietitian at Memorial Counseling Associates. “Being hungry can make us feel irritable and restless. An inadequate intake of nutritional foods may affect a person’s energy level, motivation, alertness and problem-solving skills.”

Unfortunately, production and processing affect the nutritional content of the food we eat. A diet heavy in processed foods contributes to low levels of essential nutrients and may deplete other nutrients needed for metabolism. Clapper encourages people to eat whole foods in order to get the best source of nutrition.

Although research is not conclusive, Clapper said poor nutrition may be related to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Some studies show an association with low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and the incidence of depression. Omega-3 fatty acids are often deficient in the American diet – they can be found in fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and herring.

“If you are unsure whether your diet is adequate, meet with a dietitian who will assess your needs and help you improve your diet or, if needed, recommend a supplement,” she said.

Good nutrition is essential for individuals of all ages – especially children. A child’s cognitive development and functioning is dependent on eating foods with vitamins and minerals. Children are prone to iron deficiency, which is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the United States.

“Iron deficiency affects cognition, so parents should avoid diets that emphasize processed foods that are often heavy on bad fats and too much sugar,” Clapper said.

She suggests eating well-balanced, regularly spaced meals about every four hours and providing snacks to match the growing needs of a child. Family meals are encouraged as children are then more likely to eat fruits and vegetables. Offering a variety of healthy foods is also helpful for a child’s nutrition.

Tips for improving your nutrition:

  • Make half of your grains whole grains.
  • Include healthy fats such as canola oil, olive oil, nuts and avocados.
  • Include 2-3 servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy.
  • Choose lean protein sources and include plant sources such as soy and other legumes.
  • Eat seafood at least twice a week, especially the fatty fish. Or if you do not eat fish, include flaxseed meal and walnuts.
  • Limit saturated and trans fats, sugar and sodium.
  • Eat whole foods and limit processed foods.
  • Eat breakfast and do not skip meals.
  • Aim for a variety of at least five fruits and vegetables each day.
  • Cut back on portion size and avoid sugary drinks.