May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and as a mom and a woman, I am no stranger to the fact that America is in the midst of a mental health crisis. One in five adults battles with a mental health condition, and over 15% of young people under the age of 19 have depression and anxiety. The kids are not alright.
I’ve experienced this firsthand with my two children, who have both struggled with mental health challenges at some point in their young lives. I’ve laid awake in bed worrying about them, praying for them, feeling heartbroken and helpless that they were suffering and I didn’t know how to help them. I know I am not alone.
As a nutritionist, I spend most of my time discussing the impact food and lifestyle choices can have on my client’s health and in preventing and treating chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disease, the list goes on. Thankfully, mental health is finally being viewed with a levity similar to other chronic diseases, yet nutrition’s impact on mental health has often been neglected. I am happy to say that is changing!
Evidence is now emerging that shows the foods we eat can have a significant impact on our mental health as well as our physical health. Studies have repeatedly shown that a Mediterranean-style diet supports a healthy heart, and it turns out that it supports a healthy brain too!
Foods such as fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, fish, and whole grains contain many necessary nutrients to help support a happy and healthy brain!
While I can’t write a complete diet plan to help prevent depression and anxiety in a 600-800-word article, I can suggest a few important food groups that will give you the biggest bang for your buck in the brain department!
- Colorful fruits and vegetables and dark leafy greens are high in many mood-boosting vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, help reduce inflammation, and are high in fiber. Fiber feeds the good bacteria in our gut which has been shown to correlate with better mental health. Eating at least five colorful fruits and veggies daily is a great goal.
- Try to include some fish and seafood in your family meals each week! Small fatty fish like wild-caught salmon, cod, and anchovies, and shellfish like clams and oysters are packed with essential brain-needed nutrients such as DHA and EPA Omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, and zinc. Try swapping out hamburgers for salmon burgers or throwing some anchovies on your Friday night pizza to get more of these amazing Omegas into your diet.
- Remember your protein! Animal-based protein such as turkey, eggs, and grass-fed beef contains nutrients such as iron, zinc, selenium, and vitamins B12 and B6, which are required to make our happy neurotransmitters, dopamine, and serotonin. Plant-based proteins like beans and legumes are high in fiber and many phytochemicals our brain requires to function optimally. Additionally, protein helps to balance our blood glucose levels, which, when irregular, can contribute to mood disturbances. Try to make protein a part of every meal and snack!
- Make nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, cashews, and pumpkin seeds a diet staple! Nuts and seeds are high in fiber, are a great source of plant-based protein, and contain many important nutrients to support brain and mental health.
- Last but not least…DARK CHOCOLATE! Loaded with anti-inflammatory polyphenols and high in the calming mineral magnesium, dark chocolate is essential in any mood-boosting pantry! Opt for dark chocolate that is 70% cacao or higher.