Psychology of Food

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I engorged myself with all sorts of decadent treats. All the classics; like Turkey + Stuffing, Green Bean Casserole, Breads, Cheeses, Dips, Pumpkin Pie and more. As I filled my plate with all these delicious concoctions, I engaged myself in conversation with various family members over the dinner table. Before I knew it, my plate was empty. I had mindlessly and quickly devoured my entire meal, and was stuffed before I knew it.

My old “binge eating” habits had taken over, I zoned out, and I hadn’t fully and consciously enjoyed my Thanksgiving meal. It was then that I started to tinker in my mind with all the ways our relationship with food impacts not only our physical health, but also our emotional and mental health.

 

Nutrition + Mental Health 

The old saying “you are what you eat” may have some truth to it. Nutrition and Health; these terms have been synonymous for ages. However, Nutritions’ link to Mental Health is a much newer concept.

“A very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health,” says Felice Jacka, president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research. “A healthy diet is protective and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety.” (WebMD)

We all know that diets rich in sugar, sodium, caffeine, processed foods, and alcohol negatively impact our body, our mood, our energy levels, and tend to reduce our feelings of well-being. Key nutrients are helpful for treating and preventing mental illness. Through some research, my own experiences with food, practicing in the mental health field, and a little dabbling in Nutrition courses, I was able to thread together the following “Psychology of Food” resource. 

Depression & Other Mood Disorders

Do you struggle with Depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Bipolar, Irritability, or any other Mood disturbances? Try eating:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are found to improve mood and possibly memory, too.
    • Salmon
    • Herring
    • Sardines 
    • Mackerel. 
    • Flaxseeds or flaxseed oil
    • Walnuts
  • Folic Acid and Vitamins B-12 vand B play an important role in your metabolism, and are related to chemicals called dopamine and noradrenalin. People with low amounts these chemicals are linked to have more brain inflammation and higher rates of depression, dementia, and low mood.
    • Leafy Green Vegetables  (spinach, kale, collards, swiss chard, mustard greens, broccoli, etc.)
    • Fruits
    • Fish / Shellfish
    • Meat 
    • Eggs 
  • Magnesium is a nutrient that helps your body produce energy, helps your muscles and organs work properly.
    • Leafy Green Vegetables (spinach, kale, collards, swiss chard, mustard greens, broccoli, etc.)
    • Nuts
    • Seeds
    • Avocado 
    • Bananas
  • Iron. Too little iron in the blood (iron-deficiency anemia) has been linked to depression.
    • Clams
    • Liver
    • Sunflower Seeds
    • Nuts
    • Beans
  • Zinc helps control the body’s response to stress, and Low levels can cause depression.
    • Oysters (which pack 500% of your daily need of zinc)
    • Veal Liver
    • Meat (beef, chicken, lamb, pork, venison) 
    • Pumpkin & Squash Seeds
    • Sesame Seeds
    • Peanuts
    • Legumes
    • Mussels (which are rich in brain-healthy selenium) are a good choice, too. 

Anxiety

Do you struggle with Anxiety, Stress, Racing thoughts, or constant worrying? Try eating Fermented foods and drinks can provide good gut bacteria, which may help reduce stress, anxiety, and improve mood:

    • Kefir
    • Sauerkraut
    • Kimchi
    • Yogurt (with live active cultures)
    • Soy Milk 
    • Dark Chocolate
    • Juices that contain microalgae
    • Pickles
    • Tempeh 
    • Miso Soup 

According to a study published in Psychiatry Research, that studied the correlation between fermented food eating habits and how worried or “neurotic” they tended to be, they found a positive correlation between fermented foods and Probiotics consumption and reduced anxiety / social anxiety.

Sleep 

Sleep is something that a lot of people struggle with, including myself. Whether it’s difficult falling asleep, or staying asleep, try eating:

  • Almonds
  • Chamomile Tea
  • Lavender
  • Valerian 
  • Cherries 
  • Oatmeal
  • Miso Soup

If Anxiety keeps you up at night, try some of the foods under the Anxiety category above that are found to help reduce anxiety, as well.

WHEN We Eat

While WHAT we eat has a significant impact on how we feel, WHEN we eat is just as important. Oftentimes low energy levels or mood that people feel throughout the day can be due to:

  • Poor meal timing; eating patterns that include skipping meals (breakfast being a common meal skipped) may contribute to mood swings by fluctuations in blood sugar levels.
  • Food restriction can lead to binge eating, emotional overreactions, poor concentration, increased stress, lack of nutrients, and an overall lower sense of well-being.

The optimal way to provide your body all the nutrients and fuel it needs, is to space meals and snacks 3 to 4 hours apart, and choose a healthy protein and carbohydrate source each time. ChooseMyPlate.gov offers a look inside the different components that make up a healthy eating plan. Don’t forget to drink plenty of WATER to prevent dehydration and help flush out your body’s toxins.

 

Other Help 

As a mental health professional, I must mention that these foods are in no way recommended for everyone. If you have any type of deficiency, or any other health issues, please discuss this with your doctor. Also, these foods are also not a substitute for medications prescribed to you, or other treatment options.

Also, you may need more than just a change in your nutrition plan if you struggle with severe mental illnesses such as Depression, Bipolar, etc. Find a psychiatrist or therapist near you at Psychology Today if you feel you could benefit from medications and/or other treatments for any or all of the above issues.


What do you think about your nutritions’ impact on your mood & mental health? Have you noticed a difference when you eat poorly? Have you tried any of the above foods to help? What else would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments below.

 


Resources: 

‘Can What You Eat Affect Your Mental Health?” WebMD, 2015.

‘Social Anxiety? Fermented Foods May Help.’ WebMD, 2015. 

‘Psychiatric Nutrition Therapy: A Resource Guide for Dietetics Professionals Practicing in Behavioral Health Care.’ CD-ROM. Behavioral Health Nutrition, a dietetic practice group of the American Dietetic Association, 2006.


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