Updated: Oct 12, 2021
I named my coaching business “Connect the Dots” because it’s so important to understand the connection between mental, physical, and emotional health. They’re all interconnected. Sometimes it can feel like a giant, tangled ball of yarn, which is why I became a coach - to help people untangle that mess!
Something that is often overlooked is the connection between nutrition and mental health. Traditional medicine would have you take antidepressants or other medication right off the bat, without considering other facets of your life. While medication has certainly proven to be valuable, it’s not the ONLY thing we can do to improve our mental health. I’d like to explore a few ways we can use our food to boost our mental capacity and health.
I’ll be citing an article called: “The role of diet and nutrition on mental health and wellbeing” by Owen, Lauren and Corfe, Bernard (2017) The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society . pp. 1- 2. ISSN 0029-6651
One of the first things to understand is HOW our diet can affect our mental health. We all know that “we are what we eat”, because our food eventually helps build our new cells! But, the foods we eat can also have an effect on how well our body’s systems function. Inflammation has been linked in many cases to depression, which is something that can be caused by our diet. Even our digestive system can have a huge effect on our mental state.
“Over the past decade, there has been a steady increase in epidemiological studies investigating the relationships between dietary patterns and mental states… studies have shown that the more one eats a Western or highly processed diet, the more one is at risk for developing psychiatric symptoms, such as depression and anxiety. Conversely, the more one eats a Mediterranean-style diet, the more one is protected from developing a mental disorder(5) … One randomised controlled trial published this year in BMC Medicine demonstrated quite striking effects of a 3-month dietary intervention on moderate-to-severe depression, with a significantly greater improvement in the dietary intervention group and remission achieved in 32 % of this group(6).”
We’ve seen MANY studies that have shown improved health when ditching the “western” diet, and opting for a more mediterranean style of eating. Let’s go over it now.
The “typical” Western diet includes a high amount of processed food, lots of refined grains, unhealthy fats, and sweets. There is also a high amount of red meat and dairy products. Not to mention the large amount of chemicals and artificial sweeteners.
I’ll mention here that it’s okay to live life in moderation. Indulging in sweets or other unhealthy foods is just a part of life, and can have its place in healthy living.
Now, let’s think about a “mediterranean” style diet.
One of the first things to look at is the quality of grains/carbohydrates. There is a high amount of whole grains, beans, lentils, legumes and seeds. Look for food labels that say “100% whole grain”. Whole grains are milled with the outer shell of the grain intact, which is where the nutrients are stored. In a white flour, this nutritious part of the grain has been removed, which makes the flour basically nutrition-less.
Another difference is the amount of dairy and red meat. These foods are very limited, and eaten only once or twice a week. Red meat is much harder to digest, and contains more unhealthy fat. Equally, dairy products are hard to digest and cause mild allergic reactions more often than we think. Instead of red meat, the Mediterranean diet is full of Fish, with other meats such as turkey and chicken. Fish are high in omega-3’s which is a nutrient that our body doesn’t produce itself, but needs!
Speaking of fat, the Mediterranean diet contains lots of healthy fats including olive oil, avocado, and nuts. (Healthy nuts like walnuts and almonds have soo many health benefits!) Oils like canola, corn, and vegetable oil are used in most of our processed food because it’s much cheaper. However, these oils have been shown to cause high amounts of inflammation in the body. Not to mention the low nutritional value. Cooking at home with olive oil instead of vegetable oil can be a small way to improve health!
The last thing to look at is the amount of fresh fruit, vegetables, and leafy greens in the mediterranean diet. We all know that these foods are full of nutrients which help our body function properly. They’re also high in healthy fiber which helps us stay full longer (and eat less!).
If you’ve ever been on a strict diet before, you might be surprised at how simple this way of eating sounds. The key is eating high quality foods in the right amounts.
Here are a few tips to help you make the switch to mediterranean:
Clear out the white grains, and start with 100% whole grain. When looking for bread, try finding Sprouted grain bread (which is easiest to digest). And always avoid foods with High Fructose Corn syrup. Take a look at chickpea pasta, or Organic Quinoa!
Change up your protein game! Take a look at your meals and subtract as much red meat as you can. If you love red meat, try eating it once or twice a week! Challenge yourself to prepare a vegetarian meal with lentils or beans as your protein source. Try adding some fish to your meals, which is a real superstar in the mediterranean diet. You can find frozen portions of Wild caught Salmon or Tilapia at costco!
Ditch the canola. Get rid of your vegetable, canola, or corn oil and replace it with Olive oil or avocado oil. (Organic is best!) Trust me, your body will thank you.
Take a look at your proportions. This might take some trial and error, and this is the part where you get to discover what makes you feel best. Try loading your plate with fresh fruit and veggies, and serving up smaller amounts of grains and meat. Keep in mind that foods with fat in them will help you feel fuller longer, so try adding things like hummus, avocados, nuts, and seeds. You’ll find that you’re not craving carbs as much, and your stomach will feel better without tons of meat!
This is the first step in learning about how nutrition can affect your mental health. Lowering inflammation, chemicals, and toxins from your food is SO important! Learning what foods are best for your digestive system is also a huge step for mental health. I'd like to add that changing your diet won't fix everything overnight. Like I said at the beginning of this post, all parts of our health are intertwined. So, fixing your nutrition is a GREAT start. However, there are other "tools" to add to your belt, including medication, therapy, and education.
I’ll be continuing this series on nutrition, so stay tuned!
If you’d like to work 1 on 1 with me to improve your mental health, nutrition, or other life struggles, feel free to reach out to me! Schedule a free consultation call here.