By Julie Vandrovec
Clinical Associate, The Village Business Institute
We’ve all heard the old adages “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” and “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” but can what we eat influence our emotional and mental well-being?
There is a growing trend looking at the role diet plays in mental health. While a balanced diet and good nutritional habits aren’t meant to replace treatment, they can be helpful additions to the treatment recommendations of a mental health professional.
A big trend in nutrition and food is the clean-eating movement. Studies have shown that eating more “clean” foods and less processed foods not only has an effect on your physical health, but also shows positive benefits for your mental health. Research is showing that when we eat high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, it nourishes our brain. If you deprive your brain (and your body) of good-quality nutrition, then those areas start to suffer the consequences.
How many of us have experienced feeling sad or depressed after eating a high-sugar food like ice cream or fatty food like pizza? People often eat to relieve stress or anxiety without realizing that the foods they are eating actually contribute to higher levels of stress and anxiety.
Changing a few aspects of your diet may help to boost cognitive function and reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. Eating a diet rich in whole grains, lean proteins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and fruits and vegetables has been shown to improve your mood. When we eat real food that has actual nutrition, we provide our bodies with the tools to build enzymes, brain tissues, and all essential parts of our bodies.
We have shifted the focus of eating from fueling our bodies to eating for convenience or pleasure. According to The Center for Nutritional Psychology, “74% of calories consumed by Americans come from processed, sugary foods, e.g. soda, pizza, chips, donuts.” Take into consideration that added sugar is hiding in 74% of packaged foods, which contributes to the 66 pounds of added sugar consumed by the average American every year. A big source of added sugar comes in the form of beverages, such as the soda or sports drinks we consume daily. I was amazed to learn that a Venti white chocolate mocha with whipped cream from Starbucks has 73.8 grams of sugar. That is more than a can of Coke, and way above the recommended guideline of no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar daily.
So what can you do to help steer eating habits in a more healthy direction? A simple step is to keep fruits and vegetables available for snacks. Take a little time to prep and wash everything so you can grab and go. Get your family involved! Plan meals and prepare them together. Model healthy eating habits for your children. If they see you reach for fruit instead of candy, they will start to model the same behaviors. When the weather gets nicer, visit a local farmers market. Teach your family (and yourself) about where your food comes from.
We are learning more every day about the connection between the foods we eat and our overall mental health. While the goal of a healthy diet is not to replace any mental health treatment you may already be accessing, it is worth thinking about the benefits healthier foods can provide.
Julie Vandrovec received a Master of Science in Community Counseling from the University of Mary, and is a Licensed Professional Counselor in North Dakota. She is an Employee Assistance Counselor in The Village's Fargo office, and has been employed at The Village since 2018.