Best Foods for Great Mental Health
There’s no single perfect diet or food that will guarantee great mental health. Everyone has unique and we can all add foods to our diet that support great mental health. We can also choose to avoid plenty of foods and food ingredients that can harm mental health.
Foods that are detrimental to good mental health are unfortunately the foods we most often crave when we’re stressed out, nervous, depressed, or unprepared and on-the-go. Sugary, heavily processed foods and snacks loaded with simple carbohydrates are tasty, but they interfere with healthy functioning of the nervous system. As sugar is a major fuel source for unhealthy microbes that may live in the gut, eating sugar strengthens them, causes more cravings, and can cause health complications and symptoms.
The Problems with the Standard American Diet (SAD)
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is loaded with foods that cause significant inflammation at the cellular level, leading to obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and many deficiencies and imbalances within the body. High carbohydrate diets cause systemic tissue inflammation, which is a known hazard to good mental health. Preservatives, added chemical agents, artificial sweeteners and colorings, pesticides and herbicides, and ultra-processed rancid inflammatory fats also contribute to inflammation and impaired health. It is important to choose foods to support optimal mental health while avoiding the foods that have a negative impact on mental health.
Foods to Remove from Your Diet
Many of the following foods and ingredients harm mental health by their contribution to inflammation throughout the body including blood vessels. Chronic inflammation of the blood vessels, particularly those in the brain, have a surprisingly powerful connection to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. Here is a list of the foods that are the worst offenders.
- Sugary foods and foods high in simple carbohydrates. Added sugar is found in many foods and drinks. Usually, it’s highly refined and processed sugars that sneak into our diets, and it’s these kinds of sugars that have the worst effects on a person’s mood. These include dextrose, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), corn syrup, maltose, sucrose, and maltodextrin.
When reading the nutrition label, avoid ingredients that end with “ose”, as this is a type of sugar. One of the most common sugars is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). High-fructose corn syrup is in thousands of food products and is a primary ingredient in many sodas. Research has shown that HFCS impairs mood, memory, and the ability to learn new tasks, yet Americans consume about 40 pounds of it every year. High-fructose corn syrup is also a primary cause of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, where fatty deposits accumulate in the liver and impairs liver function, leading to cirrhosis of the liver. By reducing your sugar intake, you reduce your calorie intake and remove a potent inflammatory agent from your diet.
- Processed Grains and refined starches. You won’t find refined grains and starches in nature. They’re terrible for a stable mood, as they cause blood sugar and insulin levels to swing wildly. Abrupt changes in blood sugar leads to an unstable mood and difficulty concentrating. If you are gluten-sensitive, grains of all kinds can induce “gluten brain,” a kind of brain fog that makes concentrating very difficult and impairs memory. You may also experience a "gluten hangover" where this fog and low energy lingers for a day or more after indulging in gluten.
- Fried foods and fast food. People love fried foods and the convenience of drive throughs, but most of the oils used in the frying and fast food process contributes to systemic inflammation and are linked to depression. When you eat fried or fast foods, you are ingesting a load of rancid inflammatory fats. Low-quality hydrogenated vegetable oils like canola, soy, corn, sunflower, and safflower, and saturated fats cause deposits of fat to build up in the major blood vessels, impairing blood flow to the brain.
- Alcohol. If you already have depression or anxiety, avoiding alcohol is a good idea. Alcohol makes depression and anxiety worse by depressing the central nervous system. It slows the rate of cell-to-cell communication in the brain and causes swings in blood sugar and insulin. Low-quality alcohols are also full of additives, colorings, sugars, and other toxic chemicals, which increase the stress on the liver, leading to more inflammation throughout the body.
What the Brain Needs
Good mental health starts with a healthy brain and nerve tissue. The brain and all nerves throughout the body are completely reliant on chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are made from simpler building blocks we get from a healthy diet. The health of our gut is also critical when it comes to supporting a healthy brain, as the gut-brain connection has a strong influence on the state of our mental health. The brain also requires healthy fats, as fatty tissue makes up about 60 percent of the brain’s mass. Finally, for the brain to maintain a balanced mood, steady levels of insulin and blood sugar are essential. Here is a list of foods that support great mental health.
- Organic Sprouted Seeds. Some seeds have the molecules our bodies need to create essential neurochemicals that regulate mood. Pumpkin seeds, called pepitas, increase levels of tryptophan, an amino acid required for the production of the brain’s mood chemical serotonin. They’re also full of magnesium, which is essential for restful sleep. Other healthy seeds include sprouted sunflower seeds, and flaxseed and chia seeds, which are rich in plant-based omega-3 fatty acids.
- Wild-Caught Fish. Fatty ocean fish like herring, sardines, trout, salmon, and mackerel are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids. The brain is largely made up of fatty tissues that require omega-3 fatty acids. They help build healthy connections between brain cells that support and nourish nerve tissue. Omega-3 fats are also potent antioxidants, which reduce inflammation in the tiny blood vessels that provide neurons (nerve cells) with essential nutrients and oxygen. Most people do not consume enough wild-caught fish so additional supplementation with a high-quality fish oil is essential for a healthy brain and great mental health.
- Grass-Fed Meat. Red meat is rich in B vitamins, which are important for the health of every nerve in the body. B12 is needed by nerve tissues. Meat also provides protein, which is vital for the manufacturing of neurotransmitters. Always choose grass-fed and avoid grain-fed meats for optimal mental health.
- Organic Sprouted Nuts. Walnuts are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which is great for brain health, while cashews and Brazil nuts contain magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids and protein supporting mental health.
- Soaked and Sprouted Beans and other Legumes. Beans deliver a significant amount of vitamin B12, a vital element for the good health and proper functioning of the body’s nervous system. Nerves throughout the body require B12 to regenerate and to conduct electrical impulses quickly and accurately.
- Organic Whole Foods. As we discussed previously, highly refined and ultra-processed foods are bad for the body in general. They lack nutrients and are very high in unhealthy fat and sugar, which causes swings in blood sugar. Whole foods support balanced insulin levels as they take longer to digest, reducing spikes in blood sugar levels. They also provide more nutrients with fewer calories than highly processed foods.
What you eat matters for your mental, physical, and spiritual health. Consuming a diet that is low in chemicals and toxins, clean, organic, colorful, nutrient-dense, and in the form of whole-foods will ensure great mental health and wellbeing.