Conscious Choices for Cognitive Eating

We have long known Food and mood are inextricably linked – so-called “comfort” foods are one of the first things we gravitate toward when we’re feeling blue. But as we learn more about what we eat and how it affects our health, we discover it is not always so simple as that.

The relationship between food and mental health is multifaceted: As we know, it is common to turn to our comfort foods in times of stress or when we’re feeling down; this is often one of the first things we look for when we need a boost.

Conversely, however, recent studies have shown that what we eat also has an impact on our mental health.

Let’s talk about why this is, what foods have the most impact, and what we can do to help.

The Link Between Mental Health and Gut Health

It was previously believed that mental health was regulated exclusively through brain chemistry – it makes sense, after all, as this is where cognitive function occurs.

A study from the University of Technology in Sydney found that men aged 18–25 years experienced an improvement in depression symptoms after switching to a Mediterranean diet. Two separate studies published by Nature Communications in December of 2022 exploring the link between gut microbiota and depression reported that 13 types of bacteria were found to be associated with symptoms of depression.

Serotonin plays a large part of this. Serotonin – the neurotransmitter that regulates appetite, sleep, mood, and pain – is a common piece of the discussion on mental health, and a recent study found that up to 95%, of serotonin receptors are not in the brain, as was assumed previously, but rather in the gut. 

Here’s why: Your digestive tract has endless nerve cells, neurons, and the way they work to release serotonin released is influenced by gut bacteria. Ensuring healthy gut bacteria in your digestive tract, by following much of what has been listed above, will influence the release of serotonin in more consistent, and positive, ways for the better.

Improve Your Mood with Food

One of the benefits of this research, beyond simple diagnosis in the first place, is identifying the foods that keep your gut healthy, and perhaps then influence your mental state for the better. While everyone is different, of course, studies have shown certain foods help keep your gut healthy and can therefore help balance your mood.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is incredibly important for mood regulation. We get vitamin D from sunlight, and when we don’t get enough it can lead to depression (one of the reasons people often feel down during the dark months of winter). Adding foods rich in vitamin D – like salmon and tuna, eggs, mushrooms, dairy products – can help combat these effects.

Nutritional antidepressants

The studies linked above found that nutrient-dense foods help support balanced moods as well. Seafood, fresh produce – especially dark, leafy greens like kale – avocados, nuts, seeds, and berries will all work to boost your mood.

Fermented food

Fermented foods, which are rich in probiotics, can help keep your gut happy and regulate your mood. Yogurt is the most common, and often easiest to obtain, but sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and pickles are all great options that can also add some variety to your meals.

“Whole” foods

Like the previous point, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean proteins like poultry, beans, and tofu, can help maintain brain function and gut health. These are also nutrient dense foods, so there are multiple benefits to incorporating them into your diet.

Knowledge is power

Understanding that our mood plays a role in what we choose to eat is important. Being aware of our food choices will always lead to better outcomes. What we have learned can help us make better choices, especially as the research increasingly shows what you eat impacts your mood as well.

This is not to say you can’t enjoy the foods you love – not at all. Simply to be aware of what you’re eating and the effect it might have on your mental health.

One way we can help is to ensure people know what they’re getting, i.e., that the foods we offer from our restaurants, grocery stores, and hubs where people get their food are clear about the things they offer.

Helping people understand exactly what they are putting in their bodies with clear, concise labeling – labels that include accurate nutrition and allergen information, as well as easy-to-read ingredient lists and other useful facts for optimal physical and mental health – can play a huge role in ensuring people are getting exactly what they need from their foods.

NCCO offers custom labels, and plenty of other options to aid in this fight for better mental health through food.

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