Diet and Your Emotional Health Guide

Diet and Your Emotional Health Guide

“Poor nutrition may be a causal factor in the experience of low mood, and improving diet may help to protect not only the physical health but also the mental (emotional) health of the population.” -- J. Firth and colleagues

Many factors contribute to your emotional health - genetic background, early life experiences, medical history, and stress are just some. 

One factor, that you may not have considered, is your diet. What you eat can affect your mood, in both positive and negative ways.  Making changes to your diet can help lessen anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.

Nutrition and Emotional Health

The relationship between diet, your overall emotional health, and your current mood is complicated.  The following diagram illustrates the complexity.

From the diagram:

  • A healthy, nutrient-dense diet affects your:

    • Physical health (e.g. cardiovascular health, risk for diabetes, extra weight).

    • Mental or emotional health (e.g. anti-inflammatory diet affects mood, severity of depression and anxiety symptoms).

  • Your physical health and mental health affect each other

  • Your physical and mental health also impact your diet (e.g. habits associated with extra body weight affect food choices; trying to improve mood may lead to selecting comfort foods).

The Mediterranean Diet

One of the most effective diets that can positively affect your cognitive function and mental well-being is the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is based on traditional eating patterns of countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea, like Greece, Spain, and Italy. 

This dietary approach focuses on a diverse range of foods and nutrients, consisting of: 

  • Legumes (beans and peas)

  • Fruits and vegetables 

  • Olive oil, nuts

  • Herbs, spices

  • High fiber

  • Minimally processed foods, red meat, and refined carbohydrates.

Research has highlighted the beneficial effects of this dietary pattern, specifically the protective components. They include the following, all of which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties:

  • Polyphenols (e.g., berries, cocoa powder, flax seeds, olives)

  • Flavonoids (e.g., kale, dark chocolate, red cabbage, berries)

  • Terpenoids (e.g. apples, citrus fruits, herbs and spices)

  • Omega 3 fatty acids (e.g., salmon, walnuts, flax seed, leafy green vegetables).

Following a Mediterranean diet helps with:

A Word About Antioxidants

As you will read, antioxidants are naturally present in many foods, especially fruits and vegetables.

Antioxidants are chemicals that help to protect your cells from an imbalance of free radicals which can eventually cause oxidative stress.

Free Radicals

At low to moderate levels, free radicals are necessary for proper body functioning. For example, they play a role in forming some structures within the cells and in fighting infection. At high levels they are harmful.

There are both internal and external sources of free radicals. For example, inflammation, infection, emotional stress, and aging produce them. Free radicals are also formed from exposure to environmental pollution, cigarette smoke, alcohol, etc.

Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress is caused when there is an imbalance of free radicals - this leads to cell damage. Oxidative stress is linked to medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and dementia.

Foods That Support Mental or Emotional Health

Here are some specific foods that can help support your mental health overall and your current mood. They include protein, grains, fats, vegetables, and fruits. Each of them contains specific nutrients that support brain health - i.e help with mental health problems like depression.

These nutrients and phytonutrients (nutrients found in plant-based foods) can support or promote memory and learning, nervous system function, relaxation, hormonal function, or the production of energy.

What’s For Dessert?

Dark chocolate, from the cacao tree, contains many phytonutrients. These phytonutrients include flavonoids and polyphenols, both of which have antioxidant properties.

Dark chocolate may decrease stress, increase blood flow to the brain, and improve nervous system functioning.

The more cacao, the better - aim for dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao. Avoid added sugars by checking the labels of your dark chocolate.

A portion of dark chocolate = 2-3 squares.

Healthy Gut Foods 

The composition of your gut microbiota (the balance of "good" and "bad" bacteria) is, in part, determined by factors like genetics, environment, and lifestyle. However, diet and nutrition are also major factors.

A high-quality diet like a Mediterranean diet is important to help to regulate the gut microbiota, which reduces stress and inflammation in the brain and subsequently maintains proper cognitive function. Below are foods that help maintain healthy intestinal (gut) bacteria:

  • Kefir (yogurt drink)

  • Kimchi (fermented vegetables)

  • Kombucha (fermented tea)

  • Miso soup (from fermented soybeans)

  • Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage)

  • Sourdough bread

  • Yogurt (with live cultures)

Note: fermented foods contain healthy bacteria

Hydration

Drink 8-10 cups of healthy fluids every day.  It is necessary for your overall health and for the absorption of nutrients. Pure, filtered water is best.

Immune Resilience 

Certain factors, like dietary changes, can play a role in building mental resilience - the ability to adapt to stressful situations and experiences.

Your nutrition and the balance of bacteria (gut microbiome) in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract affect your immunity (the ability to fight disease and decrease inflammation) and your ability to cope with stress and anxiety.

Since diet is the major bridge between gut microbiota and resilience, there are a few factors to consider when "eating for resilience.”

  • Focus on foods with anti-inflammatory properties. The Mediterranean diet is an example of a dietary approach that includes anti-inflammatory foods like vegetables, nuts, extra-virgin olive oil, fish, legumes, fruits, and herbs and spices.

  • Avoid processed and refined carbohydrate foods. They stress insulin levels and affect both blood sugar levels and overall metabolism. Inflammatory foods may increase the risk of a more negative mood. This may make it harder to deal with life’s stressors. 

  • Include a diverse blend of plant and fiber sources. The greater the variety in the diet, the healthier and more varied the gut microbiome (one of the “boosters” of immune resilience) will be.

Summary

Previous nutrition research has focused largely on how food impacts our physical health. However, the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry looks at diet and mood. This research supports the gut microbiome as an important factor in overall mental health. 

Focus on foods that support immune function, promote mental resilience, and positively influence your cognitive and mental state.

Refer to your program for meal ideas based on the Mediterranean diet. You can also speak to your coach for more nutritional support.