Do you often experience a mid-day energy crash? Do you have a hard time keeping a regular sleep schedule? Do you often have difficulty concentrating for long periods of time? You may attribute these issues to high stress or figure that it is normal to experience these shifts in energy level and cognition throughout the day, but have you considered your diet?
Many people do not actively think about the link between the nutritional value of the food they eat and the state of their mental health. Most of us only think about our diet in terms of physical health and changing our eating habits to achieve some physical goal of losing weight, gaining muscle, or improving physical performance. I too thought this way for many years, only really considering my nutrition when trying to lose weight. This resulted in years of yo-yo dieting, due to misinformation on nutrition and not listening to what my body needed. This past fall, I began yet another diet, but this time approaching it not only as a means to an end, but as a complete lifestyle change. In doing so, I came to discover the power that my poor nutrition had had not only over my physical health, but over my mental health as well.
Overly processed convenience foods, high carbohydrate and high sugar diets, and huge portion sizes are all too common in the U.S., and it is hurting us more than we know. There is a growing body of evidence showing a link between poor nutrition and an individual’s mood, energy level, and cognitive function. Changing your diet, to include more vegetables, healthy fats, and proteins and fewer refined carbohydrates and sugar, as well as practicing mindful eating, can drastically improve your mental and physical wellbeing.
In 2019, U.S. News and World Report came out with its ranking of the top diets in the U.S., with the Mediterranean diet ranking at number 1 for overall health. The Mediterranean diet and those similar, are plant-based, focusing on a having a well-balanced diet, consisting of more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats, and reducing intake of refined carbohydrates, sugars, and heavily processed meats. These diets have been linked to long term heart health and reduced risk of cognitive decline, but also benefit short term issues dealing with mood, energy level, and ability to concentrate.
To boost energy and cognitive function here are the most important nutrients you should be getting daily from your meal plan:
- Protein: Foods high in protein are important for feeding your muscles, increasing your energy throughout the day.
- Good Sources: leafy greens, lean meats, fish, and eggs.
- Healthy Fats: Monounsaturated fats and omega 3 fatty acids help with mood, and have been shown to decrease risk of depression. Studies also show they decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
- Good Sources: Nuts, fish, seafood, chicken, and olive oil,
- Fiber: Foods containing higher amounts of dietary fiber help regulate blood sugar levels and fill you up more than foods containing little fiber, so you don’t feel as hungry or tired.
- Good Sources: leafy greens, whole grains, berries, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds.
Not so good for you:
- Refined Carbohydrates: Refined or simple carbohydrates are not a good source of nutrition because they are stripped down of the essential nutrients that fuel the body.
- Sugar: Diets high in sugar cause brain function to decline over time, and decrease one’s energy, mood, and ability to focus.
- What to avoid/limit: Sugary drinks, sweets, and anything with high amounts of added sugars.
Following a nutrient-rich plant-based diet as outlined above has been shown to improve memory, attention skills, energy level, and mood, as well as protecting long term cognitive function.
Improving your diet for your mental health is not only about choosing the right foods to eat, but how you eat those foods. A combination of eating the right foods, cooking meals, practicing mindful eating, and planning ahead of time ensures that you sustain your healthier diet, instead of reverting back to old, unhealthy habits. Once I implemented these changes into my life, I found it easier to eat healthy and stopped craving sugar and highly processed foods.
Good nutrition is not just about providing your body with enough energy to get through the day, but protecting your mind, vital organs, and overall wellbeing. I began eating healthy with the goal of getting in shape, but through changing my habits and the foods I consumed, I discovered I felt more happy, energized, and overall healthier. I have no intention of ever returning to my past eating habits, and I hope you decide to do the same!
-Posted by Chloe