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The Role Nutrition Plays in Mental Health

We’ve all heard the quote, “You are what you eat.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that if you eat a lot of chocolate, you’ll turn into a chocolate bar. Instead, this refers to the fact that your body uses the nutrients from the food you eat to fuel itself.

If all we eat is processed food, our body will likely lack some of those critical nutrients that we need. This lack of nutrients will have a negative influence on your body composition, muscles, and physical appearance; it can also impact your mental health.

Nutrition has a significant influence on physical, emotional, and mental health. Our brains require a lot of nutrients to efficiently send out the message to release hormones, breathe, think, and accomplish the daily tasks we perform. Without the proper fuel, our bodies and brains can struggle.

What is Health?

This is a tricky concept because it is extremely unique to each person. Health also encompasses a lot more than we often think. It is so much more than exercising and eating a couple of fruits and vegetables a day.

While health is more vast than going on a run every once in a while, it is also highly individual. What is “healthy” for me may not be “healthy” for you. Our health is closely intertwined with our mental state. Some people need to work out, eat well, and drink enough water to maintain a positive mental state. Others may require something completely different. While it is essential to understand that health, nutrition, and exercise are intertwined with mental health, it is also necessary to remember that it is incredibly individual to each person.

Nutrition and Time

Most days, it is hard to eat healthily. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and other fast-food restaurants are much more convenient and affordable than some of the health food options. It isn’t easy to find the time and energy required to make food with whole food ingredients.

While it requires a lot more time and planning to get the nutrients you require, it really will make a difference. Taking this time for your self-care to ensure you eat the nutrients you need can drastically improve your mental state.

Taking this time every day also offers you time to take care of yourself. It allows you to be productive while also decompressing after a long day. Cooking and meal preparation provides you a chance to listen to a podcast or an audiobook. Taking this time to yourself while you prepare nutrient-dense food has countless benefits.

The Importance of Whole Foods

We often hear this idea of “whole foods,” but what does it mean? Whole foods are classified as foods that have not been processed. In most cases, it refers to grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, eggs, nuts, and anything else that has not gone through a factory before hitting your dinner table.

These whole foods have vitamins, minerals, and essential sugars that your body (and more importantly, your brain) requires to function correctly. While there is a time and place for supplements, eating whole foods is important to get these needed vitamins.

Whole foods are also easier to process in your gut, which is closely linked to your brain. These whole foods offer the nutrients your brain needs to function efficiently. When your brain lacks nutrients, mental health can pose more of an issue.

The Science Behind Nutrition and Mental Health

There is a lot of science behind mental health, nutrition, exercise, and eating whole foods. There are countless studies, experiments, and articles. In general, they all say the same thing. Mental health is closely related to physical health and nutrition. If you eat better and get a fair amount of physical activity, your brain can function better, and in general, your mental health will improve.

There is more than one scientific explanation for this fact, but in general, there are a couple of reasons why this is the case:

Food and Neurotransmitters

What we eat influences everything in our body, including our moods. Emotions (happiness, stress, anger, etc.) are created by releases of neurotransmitters. While this is a very scientific concept with a lot of information, one thing is simple; the nutrients in food are precursors to these neurotransmitters. Meaning, the more nutrients you get from foods, the more of that specific neurotransmitter can be produced.

Some foods can have a calming impact because they are high in specific nutrients, like magnesium. Foods like leafy greens, salmon, nuts, egg yolks, and others have been shown to have nutrients and properties that calm and decrease anxiety.

Sugar and Caffeine

Sugar and caffeine…two of the most addictive substances (and two of the most widely consumed substances). Consuming too much sugar can cause an imbalance of chemicals in your brain, which can negatively influence your mental health.

Eating too much sugar can also have a negative influence on blood sugar levels. This constant change can cause feelings that mimic panic attacks. Some sugar (preferably natural sugars) are necessary for your diet, but having a sugar-packed diet can lead to mood swings and sensitivities.

While sugar has an influence on mental health, so does caffeine. Caffeine is found in almost everything these days. On average, Americans consume 76mg of caffeine a day. But this number can be as high as 210-238mg of caffeine every day.

Caffeine is addictive because of its ability to make you feel alert, awake, and ready to tackle the day. But, the crash that follows large consumptions of caffeine can have a very negative influence on mental health.

Too much caffeine in your diet can also cause “jitters” and anxious feelings. While a moderate amount of caffeine can be helpful for getting your work done and staying up with your kids, going overboard can have adverse effects on your mental health.

Let’s be honest; cutting out all caffeine and sugar from your diet is not realistic. But, caffeine and sugar intake should be monitored and should be something you are aware of. Educating yourself on how much caffeine you should consume a day can make a real difference in your mental health.

Moving Forward

From the studies and information, we have learned that nutrition plays a significant role in your whole body, including your mind. It isn’t practical to cut out everything processed or sugary and only eat fruits, vegetables, and brown rice. But, working hard every day to meet your nutrition goals can help your mental health.

Here are a couple of ideas of processed foods to avoid and healthy snacks to grab instead.

Processed Foods to Avoid
  • Soda
  • Chips
  • Sugar Cereal
  • Cookies
  • Instant Noodles
  • Candy
  • Processed Meats

We all love these things, and cutting them out completely isn’t the answer. Becoming more aware of what you are eating and finding healthier alternatives is a practice that takes a long time to perfect, but that makes a huge difference.

Healthy Swaps

The simplicity of these processed, sugary, and convenient snacks is part of what makes them so hard to minimize. Here are a couple of ideas of easy, fast, and convenient healthier options:

  • Fruit
  • Trail Mix
  • Hummus and Pretzels, Carrots, Celery, etc.
  • Oatmeal
  • Apple Chips
  • Smoothies
  • Dark Chocolate

Eating healthy is often considered not as “delicious” or more “boring.” In reality, having a nutrient-dense diet doesn’t need to taste like cardboard. Finding tasty alternatives that you enjoy will make implementing a nutrient-dense diet more sustainable.

The Beauty of Balance

Mental illnesses are incredibly prevalent in our society, and our diets have a massive role in this. While being more intentional about your nutrition and food choices is a significant step, taking this too far can have adverse effects.

Anorexia Nervosa (an eating disorder) is classified as the deadliest mental illness. Anorexia Nervosa is often characterized by being consumed with thoughts about food and weight to the extent of not eating or often doing extreme exercises.

Finding a way to balance a nutritious diet while also eating a cookie when you want a cookie can be difficult, but ultimately this is the goal. You should never have to cut out your favorite foods; just find a way to balance nutrition and cookies.

Nutrition can help you manage stress, feel happier, and overall just improve your mental health. Mental health requires a holistic view, and you need to take care of your whole self. This includes self-care, exercise, counseling, nutrition, and anything else you need.

At Jackson House, we want to help you along your mental health journey. Everyone is different while experiencing different struggles, but you matter, you are important, and we want to help you. If you have any questions, contact us today so we can answer them.


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If you’re a provider and need to send us information on a client, please feel free to fax us at 619-303-7044. If you need help immediately, call our 24-hour crisis line at 1-800-766-4274. If you have a medical emergency, call 911. Jackson House is licensed by the State of California Community Care Licensing Division and certified by the Department of Health Care Services. We are also CARF Accredited. If you have any client or quality of care concerns, please reach out to us at (888) 255-9280. If your concerns need further attention, you can contact the Department of Public Health at 619-278-3700 or the Community Care Licensing Division at 1-844-538-8766.