We are constantly bombarded with ways that changing up our diet can improve everything: from skin to sleep. No one is denying that there are many benefits of improving your diet, especially if you’re looking to improve a particular issue, but for those suffering with their mental health, the idea of suddenly changing everything you do in your routine can feel at best overwhelming. At worst, all the changes you’re told you ‘have’ to be making can increase stress and lead to an increased feeling of uselessness – just the thing you’re trying to avoid.
It does not have to be a total, all-encompassing change, however. There are many small, easy changes you can make that would help to improve your health, without having to change your entire routine.
Although it’s often advised not to snack between meals, for many of us this is just not an option. Reaching for something crunchy and salty between lunch and dinner is just a part of our routine. If this sounds like you, it might be worth swapping in crackers or crisps for salted nuts. Even simple salted peanuts from the nut aisle of the supermarket will work. Nuts, legumes and seeds contain lots of essential fatty acids, such as omega 3. These acids work to maintain your brain health and stability.
A study conducted in 2018 demonstrated that adults who ate nuts (walnuts particularly seem to have a good reputation in this department) daily had higher levels of hope, energy, optimism and an improved interest in their activities. On top of this, nuts are good for our skin, hair, nails and bone health. Making a simple note to include more nutty foods in your diet (even switching out cereal to a nut-filled granola) can make a difference to our mental health.
For those of us who love to drink fizzy drinks and juice, there are options that can improve our mental health too. Gut health is incredibly important for wellbeing. Through the vagus nerve, our digestive system and our brain are physically linked. They are even able to send messages to each other. Due to this connection, the presence of healthy bacteria in the gut can positively affect our mental health.
Bacteria found in the gut can produce a range of different neurochemicals (chemicals the brain uses for the regulation of mood). Serotonin, for example, is produced by these bacteria. The link works both ways too, so increased levels of stress can suppress the production of these healthy bacteria.
It’s important, therefore, to keep these bacteria happy. If there are foods that you know cause inflammation or bloating, it’s best to avoid these in times of low mental health. Not only will the bloating make you feel sluggish and down, but this also means that you are not producing the bacteria you need to keep your brain healthy.
Eating fermented foods is a great way to maintain the health of these bacteria. For those that love to drink something sweet, it’s recommended to try and switch your regular choice for Kombucha, which contains millions of healthy bacteria. Trying to eat more natural yoghurt and sourdough bread area also great ways to bring fermented foods into your diet without having to try too hard.
One of the most common dietary triggers for mental health is eating too much sugar. Sugar can lead to inflammation in both our bodies and our brains. This can trigger or contribute to our mood and levels of anxiety. When feeling low and down, we often reach for sugary foods for comfort. If you do find that this comfort makes you feel better, it’s not advisable to avoid these foods and cause more stress from trying not to eat something to make yourself feel better.
It is advised to try and be mindful of your sugar intake, however. It can seem incredibly tempting to eat a pint of ice-cream when we’re feeling sad in leu of dinner – we’ve all done it. That said, trying to make sure you have a substantial meal before you open the freezer is always key. Keeping fresh fruit in the house is another great way to make sure that when you’re reaching for something sweet, you have a healthier option available to you. Although there are times when an apple just won’t cut it, it’s great to have the option there.
Just as sugar can cause inflammation and change our moods, so can simple carbohydrates. Eating more whole grains is a great way to make sure you’re receiving more slow-release sugars. Although it has no effect on the amount of carbohydrates your eating, a switch from white to brown rice (for example) can modify our moods and give us more energy. Complex carbohydrates keep youir body in greater regulation than simple ones do, and can still provide the comfort of carbs.
There is so much information about eating healthily, many of which conflicts. It can feel like an uphill battle, and when we are not in a positive headspace, this is outright impossible. Hopefully a few small changes that you can make, with minimal effort, can improve your mental health. In today’s world, everything we can do to make each day a little easier is beneficial!