What is mindful eating? Why eating well matters for your mental health

Whenever I’m feeling depressed, I never seem to have enough energy to prepare healthy food for myself. There have been times when I’ve resorted to eating cereal for dinner or barely mustered up the strength to make Easy Mac. And even though I might have been craving those nostalgic dishes, eating them didn’t really make me feel better. Sometimes, I actually felt worse.

According to psychotherapist Allie Lewin Deehan, eating poorly can both maintain and intensify pre-existing mental health issues. “Consistently eating poorly can impair our brain’s ability to regulate mood and attention, which affects how we process emotions and experiences,” she tells HG. Beyond this, people who are struggling with mental health disorders may not have the capacity to prepare or seek out health-minded foods that could help them feel more energized and able to participate in activities that may decrease their symptoms.

New research shows how a poor diet can impact your cognitive well-being. For example, a 2017 study found that people between the ages of 18 and 29 who ate fast food three times a week had higher levels of mental distress, such as anxiety or depression, than those who did not consume junk food. Some of these reports have also emphasized how diets filled with nutrient-rich foods, such as whole grains, fruits, and veggies, can help diminish symptoms of depression and boost our mental health.

So what should you eat if you’re struggling with mental health issues?

Lewin Deehan encourages her clients to eat a balanced diet and incorporate as many nutrient-dense foods as possible, including fresh produce like blueberries, sweet potatoes, and kale, while also giving yourself permission to indulge in treats or junk food on occasion. “As a student at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I learned about the 80/20 guideline for eating, which I think can work really well for some people,” she says. Though she tries to avoid living by rules, the guideline suggests eating what you think you “should” eat 80% of the time and eating what you really want, even though it might be considered unhealthy, just 20% of the time.

Lewin Deehan believes that “giving yourself permission to indulge helps keep your diet well-rounded and can prevent feelings of deprivation and [its] behavioral consequences, such as bingeing, that can otherwise occur as a result of psychological and physiological responses to rigidity and feelings of deprivation.” As a psychotherapist who also works in the eating disorder space, she is hesitant to tell anyone to stay away from certain types of foods, as a healthy diet can incorporate all foods in moderation.

However, if you’re dealing with mental health issues, there are a number of foods you should try to limit. Lewin Deehan recommends limiting your intake of processed foods, such as potato chips or pretzels, as well as fast food and anything high in refined sugar and trans fat, which are known to increase inflammation in the brain and reduce serotonin production. This includes mass-produced cookies, frozen pizza, microwave popcorn, granola bars, fruit juices, and coffee creamer.

Stacy Leung, a registered dietitian and yoga instructor focused on mindful eating and plant-based health, agrees: “It’s okay to have junk food, fast food, and sweets occasionally, but when we have them…for most meals and snacks, it can affect our mood.” According to her, if we’re tired and consume candy for energy, the surge of sugar will give us a brief boost until we feel low again. Having another sweet or soda to bring us back up creates a “yo-yo” effect that Leung believes leaves us feeling irritable and unsettled.

So what foods should you eat if you’re dealing with anxiety or depression?

Lewin Deehan says that incorporating serotonin-enhancing foods can help boost your mood. “Studies are indicating that eating more in line with the traditional Mediterranean diet, rich in natural fats, fish, whole grains, and fresh produce, can decrease symptoms of depression,” she says, adding that foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and walnuts, also help maintain healthy levels of serotonin and dopamine while lean, unprocessed meats, such as turkey or chicken, can increase energy levels. “Protein found in lean meats is composed of many amino acids, including tryptophan and tyrosine, [which are] necessary for producing serotonin and dopamine.” She also recommends dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa because it can increase serotonin levels in the brain and gut.

Beyond this, Leung recommends her clients prioritize fruits and vegetables since she finds that most people do not generally consume enough. Studies have proven that those with vitamin-B deficiencies and those who have a low intake of omega-3 fatty acids can have a higher risk of depression.

“You can find B vitamins in a wide range of foods, from animal protein and animal byproducts to fortified grains, beans, and vegetables—foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids are mackerel, salmon, sardines, walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds, she asserts.

Still, there is not one type of food or nutrient that we can solely rely on for boosting our mood. This is why we must strive for a well-balanced diet that contains fruits, vegetables, protein, and grains.

It’s easy to get caught in the trap of eating poorly or whatever is easiest to prepare when I’m feeling down, but I now know the importance of being mindful of what I consume. Using this as a guide, I can do my best to eat well even when I am not at my mental best.

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