A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Diet and mental health: 5 things to know

Woman on the couch eating a donut - How diet impacts mental health

Avoiding processed foods boosts your mental and physical health.

When people say, “you are what you eat,” you probably think about the importance of diet for your physical fitness, but diet also has an impact on your mental health.

“Individuals who eat more natural foods – whole grains, vegetables and fruit – are more likely to feel physically good and have an active lifestyle, and we know exercise and staying active is a big component of good mental health,” said Dr. Alison Jones, a Marshfield Clinic Health System psychiatrist. “People who eat natural, healthy foods and stay away from processed foods are less likely to have mental health issues.”

Mediterranean diet holds promise

A recent study has even found that the Mediterranean Diet may lower the risk of depression in people. There is strong support for the Mediterranean Diet as one of, if not the best diet plan to promote overall health and wellness.

It’s important to look at the whole picture because it’s all connected. Eating better will give you more energy to exercise, perform better at work and engage in social relationships, all of which can positively impact your mental health,” Jones said.

If you’re not looking to start a specific diet, Jones said one healthy eating tip she likes to share is to take less food from your pantry, and to eat more fresh food from your refrigerator. Food that can stay in your pantry for a long time is likely heavily processed.

Moderation is key

The key with diet, Jones said, is that you can occasionally indulge in your favorite treats, but should do so in moderation.

“A sugary treat, caffeine, salty snacks – these things are OK on occasion, but we shouldn’t consume them to excess,” Jones said.

Jury still out on probiotics for mental health

Jones added that interesting research is taking place studying the link between gut health and mental health, and it’s possible taking a probiotic could have some beneficial mental health effects, but the jury is still out.

An article on Harvard Health’s blog said, “The results of these studies were mixed. Some suggested that there may be mild benefits of taking probiotics if you have anxiety or depression while other studies showed no benefit.”

Jones said there can be mental benefit simply as a result of taking steps to improve your health. People feel good about taking positive action in their lives to make their diet better or exercise more, and the simple act of taking care of yourself in this way can have a mental health benefit.

Start big changes with small steps

Getting more active and changing your diet are big life changes that many people struggle with. To get started, Jones suggests focusing on making changes just for two weeks in a row. After that point, your new diet or exercise program starts to feel like habit, and it becomes easier to keep it up.

“You’ll also start to feel better and see some results after two weeks, which will inspire you to keep going,” Jones said.

A family affair

When you make a lifestyle change like altering your diet, it’s helpful to have your family also make the change.

“It can’t be that the whole family is, for example, eating a gluten-free diet except for dad who eats whatever he wants. The whole family has to buy in to the program for the highest degree of success,” Jones said.

If you have questions or concerns about your mental health, talk with your provider.

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