Brain food

How to eat your way to better mental health

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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2013

Just how our diets affect our health is the subject of endless research.

Every day, scientists generate new insights into how the vitamins and minerals we consume through our food impact our bodies.

We know, for example, that the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables can help reduce our risk of cancer. And we also know that a healthy diet low in saturated and trans fats and sugar can help us reduce our risk for heart disease and diabetes.

Increasingly, though, the research suggests that a person's diet may affect more than their physical health. It may also affect their mental well-being.

That point was underscored recently in a position paper produced by the Dietitians of Canada. While acknowledging that mental health is a complex issue associated with "a range of biological, social, and economic factors," the paper also states that "based on the current literature, there are at least 10 common interrelated frameworks that help explain the interactions between the food we eat and the functions of the mind."

These "frameworks" include issues such as food security, the effect of nutrition on the development of the fetus, and the long-term effects of a poor diet. Research in all of these areas is ongoing. But one thing is already clear: Just as your body needs certain nutrients to maintain physical health, your brain needs nutrients to ensure mental well-being.

Just doing something as simple as eating three meals a day can help, according to the Mental Health Foundation, a Britishbased advocacy group. It notes that regularly missing meals can result in low blood sugar, which can trigger moodiness and fatigue. Excessive sugar consumption can also pose challenges to your mental health and well-being, according to the foundation. That's because the sugars from pop, candy and other sweetened foods are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream. This in turn causes a surge of energy that disappears once the body boosts its production of insulin, leaving you tired and blue.

None of this is to suggest that diet alone can cause or cure mental health problems. As noted above, the causes of mental health issues are as varied as they are complex. And anyone who suffers from a mental health issue such as depression, anxiety or a mood disorder should seek professional help.

Nonetheless, the research does suggest that the old adage "You are what you eat" has never been more true - especially when it comes to your mental health and well-being. So, to help boost your spirits, I have adapted the following list of dietary tips produced by the Mental Health Foundation that are designed to help enhance your mental health.

Eat regular meals throughout the day to maintain constant blood sugar

Missing meals, especially breakfast, leads to low blood sugar, which causes moodiness, irritability and fatigue. Include a healthy snack of fruits, whole grains or nuts if hungry between meals.

Eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and cereals, and legumes like chickpeas, beans and lentils. Eat less processed and refined sugary food

Sugary foods are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, causing a surge of energy that soon wears off as the body increases its insulin production. This can leave you feeling tired and depressed.

On the other hand, the fibre in whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables makes these foods more filling. This slows down the absorption of their carbohydrate content, which helps to prevent mood swings. These foods are also nutritionally sound, containing thiamin, a vitamin that has been associated with concentration and attention, and folate, a vitamin that has been shown to improve the mood of depressed individuals.

Include some protein at each meal to ensure a supply of the amino acid tryptophan to the brain

We all need to eat enough protein to maintain our skin, organ, muscle and immune function. But recent research suggests that one particular component of protein - the amino acid tryptophan - is important in its effect on the brain, where it can positively influence mood.

Chicken, turkey, dairy products, nuts and seeds, and legumes contain tryptophan and can be enjoyed regularly at meal time. It should be noted that although peanuts are a protein source, they do not supply tryptophan. Vitamin B12 found in fish and meat has also been associated with mood control.

Include fish (omega 3 fatty acids) in your diet

Another great source of protein is fish. Fatty fishes like salmon, sardines, mackerel and trout have an added bonus as they are great sources of omega 3 fatty acids, which may reduce symptoms of depression and improve balance. Eating fish twice a week and incorporating other sources of omega 3 fatty acids like flax, walnuts, canola and olive oil can boost your health.

Keep your diet interesting by eating a wide variety of healthy food

Eating the same foods day in and day out can get pretty boring. But by eating a variety of different foods, especially fruits and vegetables and grain products, you can enhance your diet with many more nutrients your brain and body need. For example, magnesium-rich foods (green veggies, nuts, seeds, whole grains) and fruits (kiwi, strawberries, bananas, oranges and raisins) will help with anxiety, depression, irritability, stress and insomnia. Zinc-rich foods (oysters, mussels, shrimp, meat, lean meats, nuts, legumes, cheeses, spinach, broccoli, and squash) will also help with depression and lack of motivation.

Limit caffeine and maintain adequate fluid intake

Mild dehydration can affect our feelings, making us feel restless and irritable. Choosing caffeine drinks as part of your fluid intake can increase irritability, nervousness and anxiety. Reducing caffeine by drinking water to maintain fluid balance is more beneficial to your overall health.

Limit your alcohol intake

Alcohol has a depressant effect on the brain. Because the body needs to use thiamin and zinc and other nutrients to process the alcohol, nutrient reserves can become depleted if diet is generally poor. Deficits in these nutrients can cause low mood and irritability. Considering alcohol's depressant effects, it should be limited in the diet.

Rosemary Szabadka is a public health dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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