May is Mental Health Awareness Month and people are becoming more informed about the importance of practicing self-care to promote mental health and well-being. Finding ways to manage stress, spending time in nature, exercising, and eating a nutritious diet are all part of a healthy lifestyle. The foods we choose have a great impact on mood and wellness – those comfort foods we often choose in times of stress, grief or anxiety may be doing more harm than good.
People often crave sugar, alcohol, refined carbs, and junk food as a salve for emotional difficulties but these foods can lead to mood crashes, inflammation, blood sugar peaks and valleys, and irritability. Slowing down to prepare a nutritious, healthy meal and eating with friends or family can offer many psychological, social, and biological benefits.
According to the UK Mental Health Foundation, eating a balanced diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, fruits, lean protein and healthy fats like avocados or olive oil supports mental health. Eating regularly can help prevent blood sugar from dropping which can lead to irritability and fatigue. Drinking plenty of water can prevent dehydration – even mild dehydration can cause changes in mood, energy level, and the ability to concentrate.
It’s also important to consume a source of protein with each meal, especially for older adults who naturally lose muscle mass as they age. Protein also contains an amino acid that the brain uses to help regulate mood. Protein can help us feel fuller longer, speed recovery after exercise or injury, and maintain a healthy weight.
Researchers are learning more about the importance of maintaining good gut health for brain health. The gut-brain connection allows signals of trouble in the stomach to be sent to the brain, and vice versa, which explains why we feel butterflies in our stomach when we are nervous. By supporting good gut health with a nutritious diet including fruit, vegetables, beans, and probiotics, we also support better mental well-being.
Begin better supporting your mental health by including foods that naturally help to reduce the risk for depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in your diet. According to Eating Well, the top foods for good mental health include plenty of plant foods – fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, cold water seafood, whole grains, berries, and nuts, especially walnuts.