I believe for the longest time we have been told that our relationship with food has typically been that of eating to fuel our bodies. Food provides our bodies the nourishment that it needs to function well and keep us alive. So many of the systems in our bodies rely on the food we choose to eat, and without food we would cease to exist. This has pretty much been the history of our relationship with food, and I am pretty sure that if you’re my age (I am in my 30’s), this is what you were taught in middle school health class.
In fact, I don’t think I received much more education on Nutrition after that. Although we are beginning to value nutrition education in schools and slowly implementing nutritional programming in schools, it wasn’t always there. Much of what we learned about food was either at home, at that one appointment with your doctor office’s Nutritionist or from the diet industry. And let me tell you, the diet industry alone is confusing AF, so it’s no wonder we have so much information out there about our relationship with food.
One area that I have felt has always been lacking in nutrition education is that of food and its impact on our mental health, or in other words, our wellness…because, well, mental health is wellness! Our entire wellness really can be either regulated or dysregulated by the foods we eat. Our mood is only a piece of the mental health puzzle, albeit, an important one. So today I wanted to focus on that a bit more. In my field of mental health, we have only recently begun to dig a bit deeper and offer more than just the cliche advice of “eat healthy food”. We are starting to really spread the message that it’s not enough to just eat healthy, as “healthy” is also sometimes subjective, but to be sure to tell people to be choosy about what they eat and how their own body responds to the foods that they eat.
In order to understand how your body responds to food, you first have to understand how the human body works when it comes to food and our wellness. Let’s start by defining what mood is. Mood can simply be defined as a feeling. Mood is the emotions you feel at any given time and are also temporary states of feeling. Mood can contribute to and also be affected by our mental wellness at that given time. For instance, someone experiencing a mood disorder, such as depression, can have their mood impacted by their wellness. As well as when you are experiencing stress from everyday stressors, your ability to manage and cope with the stress can contribute to your mood.
Our brain comes into play here with mood because our brain controls our thoughts, movements, breathing, heartbeat, senses… all the things that are mood dependent and mood altering…and it controls just about every other aspect of our everyday lives. In order for the brain to maintain optimal functioning, it requires energy that comes from the foods we eat. This energy is responsible for the chemicals our bodies produce, namely dopamine and serotonin. I know you have heard of these guys. Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters linked to mood and feelings. Serotonin is known for mood management and dopamine is the pleasure chemical.
While the brain is responsible for healthy development of these neurotransmitters, Serotonin is largely produced in the digestive system; right in the intestinal tract! Our digestive system doesn’t just help us digest food, it also guide our emotions. The production of serotonin is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that make up our intestinal microbiome. These bacteria play an essential role in our health, and guess what helps to build those good bacteria? Yup, you guessed it; the nutrients we get from the food that we eat. So when you hear everyone and their mama talking about the connection between the gut and the brain, know that they are onto something! There is a direct link between the food we eat and the way we feel.
Now, as I mentioned before, it isn’t enough for me to tell you to eat healthier foods. While that is true, similar to how healthier foods can have positive effects on your body, they can also have positive effects on the mind. However, when we label foods as healthy and non-healthy we can get into a diet-mindset mentality that can become quite the trap. That’s where food shaming and body shaming come in, and in respect to different cultures some foods that may be deemed as unhealthy could be the staple for one’s cultural cuisine. So I am going to shy away from saying choose “healthy” and instead encourage you to choose “nutrient dense” foods. When you understand what nutrient dense foods are you’ll be more equipped to eat foods that support your brain and body.
Our body responds to what we eat, and when what we eat lack in nutritious properties we put our mood at risk, and thus our wellness at risk. Take for instance a diet that is high in refined sugars, processed, fried and fatty, and higher end of the glycemic spectrum, we can experience mood lability, sugar high and crashes, low energy, irritability, sleep disturbances, and so much more. Knowing what to eat, as well as how to eat, can help to keep your mood and mental health from dipping.
So it only makes sense that finding foods that promote and support serotonin and dopamine would be a mood booster. A boost in the mood means good contribution to overall wellness. Even though I am sharing this with you, the role of diet and nutrition on mental health is very complex and has yet to be fully understood. There is hope, however, as research linking the two is growing at a rapid rate. I have been learning about so many recent studies showing that food can contribute to the development, prevention, and management of mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety disorders. I have even experienced the benefits myself when I am choosy about the foods I eat.
With all of this in mind now.. I know you’re asking about what should you eat. Well, as always stay tuned, we’ll be talking about that both on the IGTV episodes as well as at the Cookout Wit Key event where I will be speaking more on the Food & Mood connection.