By Katherine Briggs Goldberg, M.S., R.D.
Most of us have days when we feel great: energetic, enthusiastic, clear-headed, content, and well-balanced. We also have those other days when we feel down: sluggish, unmotivated, forgetful, irritable, helpless, and hopeless.
Compelling scientific evidence shows that mental health and physical health are absolutely intertwined, and we now understand that the link between mood and nutrition is much stronger than previously thought. The prevention and management of many diseases rely on our genetic individuality, our environment, stress management, and healthy lifestyle habits – and nutrition is the foundation of a healthy body and mind.
Healthy eating habits can be challenging to maintain with our modern lifestyle, which can generate feelings of stress that can disrupt our good intentions, which in turn can affect our mood. Here are a few tips that will hopefully help you feel happier and healthier:
- Don’t skip breakfast, and eat three well-balanced meals. Simply skipping breakfast is associated with lower fluency and problem-solving ability, along with lack of energy and motivation.
- Eat good sources of protein. These include eggs, nuts, fish, whole grain quinoa, yogurt or cheese. Protein consists of amino acids, the building blocks of neurotransmitters. Protein also helps stabilize blood sugar, which can interfere with concentration and mood when elevated (hyperglycemia).
- Avoid high-sugar foods or refined carbohydrates, such as bagels, doughnuts, and other refined grain products, and make sure cereals are truly whole grain (preferably organic), like oatmeal. Generally, try to eat whole fruit rather than drink fruit juice, as the fiber in the fruit will help slow down absorption of sugars in the fruit as well as be more filling.
- Eat at least 6 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruit every day. Try to get all of the colors of the rainbow. One serving = ½ cup. See the website ewg.org to see the produce with the highest and lowest pesticide content to make the best choices.
- Mind your dietary fats: Found in both plant and animal foods, these play a significant role in brain function. Omega-3 fats from foods such as fish, flax seeds, walnuts, some eggs, and grass-fed beef have been shown to improve cognitive function and lower depression by reducing inflammation. Excessively low-fat diets, as well as diets high in processed foods, are linked to mood changes.
- Choose beverages wisely: Drink plenty of filtered water to improve blood flow and keep your brain well-hydrated. Avoid sugary drinks or those with artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, or preservatives. Limit or avoid alcohol, and limit coffee intake. Green tea has been shown to reduce anxiety and sharpen mental focus while relaxing the mind.
- Vitamins are key: Take a high quality, natural vitamin and mineral supplement daily. Many of the B vitamins such as B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B6 (pyridoxine), folate, and B12 (methylcobalamin) have been shown to reduce the incidence of depression. Low levels of Vitamin D3 increase one’s risk of major depression. Also, low levels of magnesium, selenium, and zinc are linked to mood changes.
- Snack well: Pack healthy snacks such as nuts, fresh or dried fruit, and veggies to keep your blood sugar stable and give you energy.
Katherine Briggs Goldberg, M.S., R.D., is a dietitian and culinary arts specialist with U-M’s MHealthy Health and Well-Being Services in Nutrition Education, as well as a member of the Depression Center Community Volunteer Committee.