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Nutrition for Nourishing Mental Health: Foods to Support a Balanced Mind

Follow these seven evidence-based recommendations to harness the powerful connection between nutrition and mental health, and support your journey towards a balanced mind.

As the world slowly returns to "normal," messages promoting self-care and the importance of taking care of your mental health are here to stay. I'm happy about that! As a society, we're more aware than we've ever been, aren't we? We're more aware of the impact of social media on self-esteem and mood—so much so that we now have the terms "social media break" and "doomscrolling." Workplaces are more aware of the causes of burnout, and (the good ones) have put measures in place to help prevent their employees from experiencing this exhausting phenomenon. And, perhaps most beautifully, we're more aware of the fact that actual in-person, face-to-face human interaction and physical touch—a simple hug—can heal, especially after going without for so long.

In general, we as a society today are more aware of the prevalence, signs, symptoms, impact, and treatment of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. We've gone from not being about to talk about mental health at all to publicly wearing t-shirts that say "my anxiety is chronic but my personality is iconic" and sporting pins emblazoned with "mental health matters." (I have the pin secured to my backpack but I MUST BUY that t-shirt.) What's more, we're now more aware of the fact that everyone—not just those with anxiety or depression—can take steps to improve their mental health.

Sure, you know that therapy and medication are go-to treatments for mental health issues (two more things that we've become more aware and accepting of! 🙌). And you hear a lot about self-care for improving your overall mental health. But often overlooked, and just as impactful to mental health, are exercise and nutrition! The way you move your body and the foods you consume can influence your brain health, mood stability, and anxiety levels. Let's explore the connection between nutrition and mental health, and look at seven evidence-based recommendations to support a balanced mind.

The Gut-Brain Connection: Did you know that your gut (your digestive system—intestines, specifically) and your brain are intricately connected? Your gut is home to a complex ecosystem of bacteria called the gut microbiome. The gut microbiome communicates directly with your brain—what you eat influences your mental health. Pretty cool, huh?

  1. Eat More Nutrient-Dense Foods: To support a balanced mind, it's essential to incorporate nutrient-dense foods into your eating pattern. These foods provide essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support brain health and optimize neurotransmitter production. In basic terms, this means that foods with high amounts of nutrients help your brain better communicate to the rest of your body, so that your body can function better. Here are some key nutrients to focus on:

    1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Found in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds, omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function and can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

    2. B Vitamins: Foods like leafy greens, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), and whole grains are rich in B vitamins. Adequate B vitamin intake supports healthy brain function, as these vitamins are needed for your body to make neurotransmitters (brain messengers) and produce energy.

    3. Antioxidants: Colorful fruits and vegetables, such as berries, spinach, and sweet potatoes, are rich in antioxidants that can prevent inflammation and reduce your risk for disease, including heart disease and certain cancers.

    4. Probiotics: Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut contain beneficial bacteria that support a healthy gut microbiome. Research suggests that probiotics may help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

  2. Prioritize Whole Foods: Processed and sugary foods can negatively impact mental health. See my blog post on the Food-Mood Connection to read more about this. Instead, prioritize whole foods that provide sustained energy and nourishment. A whole food is minimally processed and as close to its natural state as possible. Be sure to include a variety of whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, legumes, nuts, and seeds in your eating pattern.

  3. Cook More at Home: One easy way to eat fewer processed and sugary foods is to cook at home! When you make your own food, you can control exactly what goes into it. Plus, cooking is a fun, engaging activity that may boost your mood and creativity! Not sure where to start? Try my Esquites recipe, perfect for summer!

  4. Practice Mindful Eating: Mindfulness can help you slow down and stay present. Mindful eating can help you cultivate a positive relationship with food and improve your mental health. Plus, you'll enjoy your food more! Slow down, savor each bite, and pay attention to your body's hunger and fullness cues. Listen to what your body truly needs. Need help? Download my free Mindful Eating Guide!

  5. Allow Foods You Love: Many foods you're told to avoid taste really good! Eating foods you love can help boost your mood, provide comfort, connect you to others, and enhance your overall well-being! Restricting or eliminating such foods can lead to feelings of deprivation and dissatisfaction. Allow yourself to enjoy all foods, including your favorites, without guilt or judgment.

  6. Hydration Matters: Don't forget the importance of drinking water! If you know anything about me, you know I drink a TON of water, and I promote drinking water like my life—and your life—depend on it. Because they DO! Dehydration can lead to fatigue and reduced brain function. Keep a water bottle or a glass of water near you throughout the day and drink some whenever you feel thirsty, to keep your brain and body hydrated.

  7. Personalize Your Nutrition: Your nutrition needs may be different than those of your friends and family members, so it's essential to find what works best for you. Experiment with different foods and take note of how they make you feel mentally and physically. Keep a food journal to track your mood and energy levels, allowing you to identify patterns and make informed choices.

To wrap up: Our society's increasing awareness of mental health has led to the recognition that proper nutrition helps support more than just physical health. Nutrient-dense foods like omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, antioxidants, and probiotics nourish your brain, gut microbiome, and help to stabilize moods. Eating more whole foods, cooking at home, practicing mindful eating, eating the foods you love, and drinking enough water will support your efforts. Taking a personalized approach to nutrition can lead to informed choices. Together, these recommendations actively nourish and support a balanced mind.

Nourishing your mental health is an ongoing journey, and small changes can add up to make a big difference. Remember, it's not just about WHAT you eat, it's about HOW you eat. Sure, the specific foods you consume matters, but cultivating a mindful and intuitive approach to eating matters more! Prioritize yourself and let the power of nutrition fuel your path to a more balanced mind and vibrant overall well-being.

And if you need any help along your journey, I'm here! As a non-diet dietitian, I am dedicated to helping my clients tune out the noise and tune into their body to make informed choices that support their mental health and well-being. If you're ready to take the next step in improving your mental health and exploring the role of nutrition in your journey, I invite you to schedule a free discovery call. This call will give us the opportunity to connect, discuss your goals, and determine if working together is the right fit for you.

Here's to being more aware, and to nourishing your mental health!

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