By Kelly Melanson
May 4, 2021
Food and Your Mood
I don’t think it comes as any surprise that our physical and mental health have been steadily declining over the last year. Put simply, the last 12 months have been pretty ruthless. A global pandemic, job insecurity, social isolation, racial injustice and political turmoil are just a handful of the stressors we have been faced with on a continuous basis. It seems the minute one stressor ends, another begins, leading people to experience more sleep problems, more drug and alcohol use, and increased rates of depression and anxiety. Maybe you have experienced some of these personally, or have family and friends that are struggling.
While there are a multitude of factors that contribute to these issues, a lot of people don’t recognize the extensive connection between the food they put on their plate with how they feel mentally and emotionally. The human brain utilizes at least 20% of the calories we consume in a day and requires at least 130 grams of carbohydrates (carbs) each day just for its basic functions. This means you need the equivalent of 6.2 slices of Oroweat 100% Whole Wheat Bread per day to meet your minimum carb requirements. Now you can see why it’s probably not the smartest idea to be following the infamous Ketogenic (Keto) diet, unless you’re a child with drug-resistant epilepsy, of course. You can’t build a house without the right materials and you can’t build a healthy brain without the right ingredients. So what are the right ingredients?
In 2018, Dr. Drew Ramsey and colleagues published a systematic review in the World Journal of Psychiatry that outlined an Antidepressant Food Score (AFS), the first nutrient profiling system of its kind, to identify the top 12 nutrients that benefit brain health. The 12 nutrients they identified were folate, iron, long chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), magnesium, selenium, thiamine, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin C, and zinc. Now, before you run to your local supplement shop or health coach guru (please always see a Registered Dietitian), it is important to understand that your overall dietary pattern is much more important than hyper-focusing on individual nutrients and it is always better to get nutrients via food rather than via supplements. While a detailed outline of each nutrient is beyond the scope of this article, I have created the Dietitian’s version of the Therapist’s “Feelings Wheel” to help individuals easily identify the top food sources from each of the 12 nutrients.
Notice anything different about the foods listed compared to most of the diets you or your clients have likely tried? That’s right, no food group is eliminated. No food group is off limits. You’re allowed, and highly encouraged, to eat carbohydrates, proteins, and fats of all different kinds. I find it fascinating that individuals tell me they are doing some sort of crazy diet for their “health” when 100% of diets encourage you to restrict some form of food and/or nutrient. That’s like asking you to brush your teeth while eliminating toothpaste and still maintaining good oral hygiene. Probably not going to happen.
While the diagram above can be an easy guide to follow, I find it beneficial to simplify this information even further by encouraging individuals to look at food through a broader lens. Our society loves flashy headlines promising instant gratification like “Seaweed Powder Coffee Proven to Shed 5,000 lbs in 1 Week and Boost Credit Score!” They get much less excited about a headline like “Eat a Balance of Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats for Long-Term Brain Health”. So much of our society gets hooked up on finding the one perfect nutrient or superfood that is going to solve all their insecurities and ailments when in reality, all one really needs to focus on is getting variety, balance, and moderation in their diet. Food doesn’t need to be as complicated as people make it. Let’s take a closer look at how carbs, proteins, and fats are all integral components in the equation for good mental health.
With the current hatred of carbs and love of Keto, most people aren’t lacking in the protein department. (I should also mention here that Keto is actually high fat and low-to-moderate protein, meaning the majority of people following Keto aren’t actually following it correctly. But that is a conversation for another time…) One of my favorite examples on how protein directly impacts the brain is when it comes to tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning we must get it through the foods we eat because our body cannot make it from pre-existing substrates. You can ensure you are getting enough tryptophan by consuming plenty of chicken, fish, eggs, turkey, peanuts and sesame seeds. You should notice that all these foods also contain some of the 12 nutrients listed in the diagram above. Tryptophan is important for many reasons, but it is especially important when considering mental health because it is the precursor for serotonin. As you may know, lower levels of serotonin are associated with increased levels of depression and anxiety. But before you join the anti-carb club and stock your fridge with only protein, it’s important to understand that tryptophan cannot get to its final destination and complete its mission without the assistance of carbs. This is because tryptophan has to compete with all the other amino acids to get into the blood brain barrier, and without carbs, it gets pushed out of the way. When carbs are consumed, it triggers the release of insulin, which lets tryptophan have a free ride into the brain. This is where it turns into serotonin and helps keep you in a good mood.
When it comes to dietary fats, society can never make up their minds. One day fats are good for you, the next they’re bad for you. Then some fats are good, but most are bad. It’s exhausting trying to keep up. The one thing you can be sure of is that your body, and especially your brain, perform best when consuming 25-30% of your daily intake from fat. The majority of the human brain, about 60%, is composed of fat and fatty acids play an integral part in the brain’s integrity and ability to perform. When you are not consuming adequate fat through food, your body is going to be unable to maintain a healthy, well-built brain. You must eat food sources containing fat in order to obtain the 2 essential fatty acids, omega-3s and omega-6s, that your body cannot produce. Omega-3s, in particular, are essential building blocks for our brain that support learning, cognitive function, memory, concentration, and mental clarity. If you refer back to the Food Wheel diagram, you’ll notice that omega-3s are one of the 12 nutrients shown to positively impact brain health.
5 Simple Takeaways:
1. Simplify Eating.
Eating doesn’t have to be complicated. Throw out the diet books and Dr. Oz supplements and start by building your plate with a combination of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. As you just read, these are three vital players in improving your mood and mental health.
2. Stop dieting.
Just stop. Stop depriving yourself of vital nutrients that are required for your brain health and overall well-being. It’s never going to work.
3. Start enjoying food again.
Yes, you’re allowed to enjoy food. Yes, you’re allowed to eat foods you enjoy. No, you don’t have to drink kale chia seed green juice smoothies every day if you think they are disgusting.
4. Experiment with new foods.
So much of our society is focused on eliminating foods from their diet that they forget food is meant to be enjoyable. Try choosing 1 new food from the food wheel each week and incorporate it into your family dinner. If we keep eliminating foods at the rate these fad diets are telling us to, we’re not going to be left with anything to eat.
5. Switch your focus.
Weight + physical appearance does not equal health. What would it be like to eat for overall mental, emotional, and physical health rather than just a number on the scale or to fit into a certain pair of jeans?
There are enough stressors taking up valuable time in our lives today that it doesn’t make sense to allow something as simple as food to stress us out when it can so easily improve our moods in a healthy way. And let’s be honest…stressing less about food is automatically going to improve your mood, even before you take your first bite.
About the Author:
Kelly Melanson is a Registered Dietitian who specializes in providing nutrition therapy to adolescents and adults struggling with disordered eating. She currently works in private practice at Sierra Treatment Center of Sacramento and serves as the Registered Dietitian at Center for Discovery’s Eating Disorder Residential Facility for adult women in Granite Bay. Kelly received her Bachelor of Science degree in Dietetics with a minor in Biology at California State University Sacramento and later completed her Dietetic Internship at Stony Brook Medicine in New York. During her Internship, Kelly explored various areas of nutrition and was given the opportunity to work with a private practice Dietitian specializing in eating disorders. This experience was a turning point for Kelly and ignited her desire for working in the field of eating disorders and mental health. She is passionate about providing personalized nutrition care and counseling to individuals and their families and enjoys helping people reject the diet mentality while learning to make peace with food.