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NCHPAD - Building Healthy Inclusive Communities

Food and Your Mood: Nutrition and Mental Health


The documentary 'Super Size Me' is a very extreme depiction of how food can make someone feel. In this 2004 movie, Morgan Spurlock sets out to eat only McDonald's food 3 times per day for 30 days to explore the connection between the obesity epidemic and the increased intake of fast food in our country. He consumes nothing, not even water, unless it comes from McDonald's, and if he's ever asked to 'super size' a meal, he has to say yes, hence the title. In addition, he restricts his physical activity.

Not only does the diet wreak extremely dangerous havoc on his physical health, in terms of weight gain, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, but it takes a huge toll on his mental health. By the middle of the month of this fast-food diet, he claimed he was suffering from massive headaches and had never been so depressed in his life. In addition, his energy level was extremely low.

The old saying 'you are what you eat' may have some truth to it. Most of us have likely experienced, in one way or another, how food can make us feel after eating it. Maybe you've felt uncomfortable and tired after a big Thanksgiving meal or energized to start your morning after a healthy fruit smoothie. Food affects both our physical and mental health.

Depression is very common in our society for a variety of reasons. It is sometimes a secondary condition associated with people who have chronic health conditions or disabilities and face unique problems and challenges which may place them at increased risk. Depression is a serious illness and it is very important to see a health care professional for treatment if you are experiencing signs of depression. Good nutrition is an important component of an improved mood and an increased sense of well being but it is not a substitute for medical care.

How Nutrients Help Your Brain
How we feel can be a result of what we eat, but what we eat can also be due to how we are feeling. Food and the chemicals in our brains interact to keep us going throughout the day. It is important to eat a variety of healthy foods, as they have different effects on our brains. For example, carbohydrates increase serotonin, a brain chemical that has a calming effect. Perhaps that's why people often crave carbohydrate-rich foods when they are under stress. Protein-rich foods increase tyrosine, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which help to increase alertness. In addition, certain healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids) become part of the membranes of brain cells and control many brain processes. Poor nutrition or lack of a variety of healthy foods can contribute to depression by limiting the availability of these specific nutrients.

What Deficiencies Can Do
While nutrient deficiencies are usually rare, it's important to note the effect that certain deficiencies can have on mental health. Thiamine (vitamin B1), which is found in legumes, some seeds, and fortified grains, is necessary for maintaining your energy supplies and coordinating the activity of nerves and muscles. Thiamine deficiency can therefore lead to weakness, irritability, and depression. Folate (vitamin B9), which is found in leafy greens, legumes, and fortified grains, is essential for supporting red blood cell production, helping to prevent homocysteine build-up in your blood, and allowing nerves to function properly. Folate deficiency can result in depression, apathy, fatigue, poor sleep, and poor concentration.

Please note that no research studies support taking large amounts of vitamin supplements to prevent or treat depression. It is very important to talk with your doctor before taking any vitamin or supplement. Remember, vitamins and minerals from food are much more readily and efficiently absorbed in the body than those obtained from supplements. By eating a wide variety of foods – including lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and low-fat dairy products – you are bound to obtain the nutrients needed to support a healthy body and mind.

How Timing Can Make a Difference
While what we eat can have a significant impact on how we feel, when we eat is equally important. Often the low energy levels that people feel throughout the day are a result of poor meal timing. For example, eating patterns that involve skipping meals may contribute to mood swings by causing fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Food restriction can lead to binge eating, bigger emotional responses, poor concentration, increased stress, and an overall lower sense of well-being. Depression has been shown to develop in people with disordered eating who frequently restrict food. The optimal way to fuel your body is to space meals and snacks 3 to 4 hours apart and choose a healthy protein and carbohydrate source at each meal.

The following link to My Pyramid offers a look inside the different components that make up a healthy eating plan. Visit the link to ensure you are getting a variety of healthy foods for a healthy body and mind.
http://www.mypyramid.gov/pyramid/index.html

Next time you eat, pay attention to how you feel afterwards. Perhaps you'll begin to notice you're in a better mood and have more energy after eating a healthy meal. Remember to eat a variety of foods and space your meals and snacks throughout the day. Here's to a happier and healthier New Year!

Resources:

'Psychiatric Nutrition Therapy: A Resource Guide for Dietetics Professionals Practicing in Behavioral Health Care.' CD-ROM. Behavioral Health Nutrition, a dietetic practice group of the American Dietetic Association, 2006.

MyPyramid.gov – United States Department of Agriculture – Home. Retrieved January 8, 2009 from http://www.mypyramid.gov



Please send any questions or comments to Gillian Goodfriend at ggoodfri@uic.edu.


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