When people hear the phrase “You Are What You Eat,” the first association is likely with good physical health. But did you know the foods you eat also have an effect on mental health?
Carla Duenas, registered dietitian with Community Health  at Baptist Health South Florida, outlines what and how we need to eat for a healthy mind and beneficial emotional health. She lists the substances found in food that help fuel positive feelings and ward-off disease in three categories: antioxidants, healthy fats and fiber.
“Antioxidants contain certain vitamins, specifically vitamins A, C and E, which have been shown in research to combat stress-induced disorders such as depression and anxiety,” Ms. Duenas said.
Good sources of antioxidants are:
- Fruits – prunes, blueberries and blackberries. Dark-colored fruit have higher concentrations of antioxidants.
- Vegetables – spinach, kale, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, beets, red peppers.
“The omega-3 fatty acids in what we call ‘healthy fats’ can reduce inflammation, and some studies suggest they have a mood-stabilizing effect and help treat depression,” Ms. Duenas said.
She suggests certain types of fish, plant-based oils and seeds:
- Fish– Salmon, trout, mackerel, anchovies, sardines.
- Plant oils – olive oil, sesame seed oil.
- Seeds – chia, flax (also good source of fiber).
“Fiber helps stabilize sugar levels by slowing down the way the body processes it, leading to better mood control,” Ms. Duenas says. “Over the long-term, this helps avoid extreme high and low feelings.”
High-fiber foods Ms. Duenas recommends include:
- Whole grains – whole wheat pasta, bran flakes, pearled barley, oatmeal.
- Dark-colored fruits and vegetables – blackberries, raspberries, artichokes, broccoli, Brussel sprouts.
- Beans – split peas, lentils, black beans, lima beans.
Eat Raw Fruits and Vegetables for Better Mental Health
How you eat the food that’s good for mental health also plays a role, research says. People who eat fruits and vegetables raw, instead of cooked, have a higher positive mood, according to one study published last month in Frontiers of Psychology.
The online survey of 422 young adults, ages 18-25, living in New Zealand and the United States, evaluated eating raw versus cooked, canned or processed fruits and vegetables with negative and positive mental health. The raw fruit and vegetable eaters reported lower symptoms of depression and anxiety and higher satisfaction with life.
The top 10 raw fruits and vegetables they found related to better mental health are carrots, bananas, apples, dark leafy greens like spinach, grapefruit, lettuce, citrus fruits, fresh berries, cucumber and kiwi.
And while you may be tempted to blend a bunch of these fruits and vegetables into a smoothie, thinking you’re maximizing nutrient intake, Ms. Duenas cautions people.
“Blending does the work of breaking down the food, instead of the stomach digesting it as the body’s made to,” she said. “This delivers a higher sugar content quicker, and your body can’t always process it the right way.”
Eat Often for Optimum Health
When you eat is also important. Ms. Duenas and other nutrition experts recommend eating every three to four hours and not skipping meals. Not eating enough often leads to overeating later to compensate for nutrients your body is lacking, she said. And hunger can trigger anger and irritability, which over time, can lead to depression, anxiety and other negative feelings.
“At the end of the day, it’s about following a healthy eating pattern,” Ms. Duenas adds. “Most importantly, eating a controlled amount of food high in antioxidants and fiber and a low intake of refined sugars.”