What is Nutrition?
Think about it. Your brain is always “on.” It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep. This means your brain requires a constant supply of fuel…nutrients. That “fuel” comes from the foods you eat — giving the brain the nutrients it needs makes all the difference. Put simply, food can affect the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.
Nutrition is the study of nutrients in food, how the body uses them, and the relationship between diet, health, and disease. Nutrients provide nourishment. Proteins, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water are all nutrients. When people mindfully include these nutrients in their diets, they are investing in their health. Your mental health is also impacted by nutrition!
Connection Between Nutrition and Mood
The connection between diet and emotions stems from the close relationship between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract, often called the “second brain”.
If the body isn’t getting its energy needs met, sensors in the gut and other active cells alert the brain that there is a problem. Body systems that are involved in finding food then become activated. This may be experienced as heightened thoughts about food, a sensation of emptiness inside, an inability to concentrate, and/or a desire to get up and find food. If a person doesn’t respond to these cues, a feeling of tension can emerge.
When energy needs are not reliably met for an extended time – even slightly less energy than needed – a person will experience higher anxiety. It is calming to respond to the body’s cues for food consistently. If you anticipate that you will be away from food at a time when hunger cues would normally arise, eating in advance or packing food is helpful to avoid the anxiety of staying hungry.
Your GI tract is home to billions of bacteria that influence the production of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters, like Dopamine and Serotonin, constantly carry messages from the gut to the brain. Habitually eating foods high in fiber from a variety of sources and including fermented foods like yogurt or sauerkraut promotes the growth of good bacteria, which in turn could positively affect neurotransmitter production. This may be linked to reduced risk of developing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress; however, additional studies are still needed.
When Our Needs Aren’t Met
When protein needs aren’t being met, the nervous system sends a message from the gut to the brain that indicates a need to seek high protein foods. You might notice this happening if you have been eating high carbohydrate foods for much of the day and experience an urge to find a burger or chicken burrito. If you aren’t able to eat sources of protein consistently, a sense of being unsettled and possibly sleepiness will arise.
This pattern plays out for other nutrients as well. Your body is smart! When nutrient needs aren’t being met, your mood can be negatively affected.
If a person has a history of not getting enough food over a long period of time, anxiety about getting food can also be experienced long past the time of food insecurity. This can happen from a history of poverty, neglect, dieting, or any other circumstance where food was inadequate.
The body is wired to stay alive, and it learns to stay vigilant and eat all of the food possible when it becomes available. If you notice yourself feeling anxious about finding more food and you know you’re not hungry, this could be happening.
Beginning a pattern of consistently eating at regular intervals throughout the day is calming to the body, and these urges to eat beyond hunger and the resulting anxiety should subside in time. It’s also helpful to take a deep breath and remind yourself that you will eat the next meal or snack shortly, and there is no need to eat all the food right now.
Well-Balanced Diet for Mental Health
Now that you know how mindfulness of your hunger cues and a well-balanced diet can have a positive effect on your mental state, how can this be accomplished? The truth is that there is no single way to eat for good health. However, basic principles apply to everyone.
As you read earlier, eating regularly and consistently is essential. Eating 3 meals and 2-3 snacks daily gives your brain a consistent supply of energy and your cells the building blocks they need to make necessary enzymes, neurotransmitters, hormones, and countless other substances needed to keep life going healthfully.
Every person has preferences for the times that they eat, but if you are prone to anxiety, it is recommended to eat breakfast within 1 hour of waking. It is calming for the body to know that food is available, and other emotional issues can be dealt with more easily after basic physiological needs are met.
After breakfast, eating a snack 2-3 hours later is helpful, or if breakfast was substantial, eating lunch 3-4 hours later could also be an option. As a rule-of-thumb, eating every 3 hours is good for your mood. Letting more than 4-5 hours lapse between eating times opens the door for anxiety to set in.
Eating each of the macronutrients at meals and snacks is also helpful. Macronutrients are the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats that make meals satisfying. When choosing these foods, being mindful to include a variety of colors and flavors that are pleasing to the eye and palate throughout the week will ensure that vitamin and mineral needs are being met.
Here are some examples of foods and functions of each of the macronutrient food groups:
The body’s preferred source of energy to do the work required in every cell.
Examples of foods: Potatoes (white or sweet), rice (brown or white), pasta, quinoa, dried beans, breads, fruits, vegetables (these offer smaller amounts of carbohydrates, so make sure they are paired with another source), sweets, chips, hummus, tortillas, and so many more! Remember to include the colorful ones regularly, and choose a variety!
Breaks down into amino acids that are the building blocks needed to make the “stuff” your body needs to function.
Examples of foods: Chicken, fish, beef, pork, turkey, eggs, cheeses, yogurt, cow or soy milk, nuts, tofu, and other soy products. Grains and dried beans also offer some protein.
The body’s source of energy that is digested and processed more slowly, to keep us going for longer between meals. They are also highly functional and used as elements of hormones, cell membranes, brain cells, and keep your hair and skin from drying out.
Examples of foods: Oils, butter or margarine, nuts, seeds, avocado, sour cream, cream cheese, meat or fish fats, desserts, or foods cooked with fats.
Importance of Hydration
Hydration is also important for mood! Dehydration can influence your mood, level of alertness and fatigue.
People are often told to drink 8 cups of water daily. This is a good rule-of-thumb, but activity, climate, and individual genetic makeup also impact fluid needs.
The easiest method to assess fluid status is to look in the toilet after urinating and notice the color of your urine. If it has a dark tint to it, it would be wise to reach for something to drink. When you are well hydrated, urine tends to have a straw-like color, or it could be almost clear. Any fluid counts toward hydration! Water is excellent, but if you find it boring, find other fluids that you enjoy.
Andrew M. Taylor & Hannah D. Holscher (2020) A review of dietary and microbial connections to depression, anxiety, and stress, Nutritional Neuroscience, 23:3, 237-250.
David Benton, Hayley A. Young, Do small differences in hydration status affect mood and mental performance? Nutrition Reviews, Volume 73, Issue suppl_2, 1 September 2015, Pages 83–96Stein, Z., Susser, M., Saenger, G., & Marolla, F. (1972). Nutrition and Mental Performance. Science, 178(4062), 708-713. Retrieved April 17, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1735827