Most people tend to think of healthy eating as a means to attain weight-loss goals. Eating better can feel like a chore, and if the pounds don’t drop off as quickly as you’d like, it’s all too easy to bounce back to poor eating habits — after all, pizza and ice cream are delicious.
What is often overlooked, however, is the way in which the food we eat impacts our mental state. Chemical changes that take place in our bodies in response to the food we eat are less noticeable than physical changes like weight loss, but they are equally important.
Katie Hart, founder of a mental health and nutrition clinic in Olympia called HartSpace, is an expert in the linkage between food and mental health after years of study and practice helping people identify ways to improve their holistic health.
“There is absolutely a connection and correlation between what people eat and ultimately how they feel day to day, how much energy they have, how well they sleep,” said Hart. “The impact of food on the way our whole hormonal and endocrine system works is pretty significant because it’s the building blocks for all your hormones.”
Finding the right diet to support different elements of mental health can be tricky, said Hart. Even when people have a healthy diet, it’s possible that a deficiency in some area can affect mood, energy levels, and more in a negative way.
“Single missing ingredients can be a big factor. Someone can feel like they’re eating really well and still not feel great.”
Hart acknowledged the frustration of this process and recommended that people see a provider who can help identify all the things that are working or not working in any given diet. It’s possible someone in this situation who is trying his or her best simply might need more omega-based fat or protein but doesn’t realize it. A small tweak, Hart said, can make a big difference.
For those who struggle with different mental health conditions and depend on a medication, Hart said even a shift toward a healthy diet can make it possible to be medication-free.
“I would tell someone who is interested in getting to a point where they don’t need their mental health (medication) that they should do that, with the help of a nutritionist or provider who can guide them through changing their diet and monitoring results,” she said. “I have definitely seen people get off of their medications, both for mental health needs and medical needs, through changing their nutrition and lifestyle.”
So, how should people approach a diet that supports positive mental health? Hart recommended that people eat out less and avoid processed, packaged foods, which are inherently salty and inflammatory. Another contributor to poor mental health is highly refined carbohydrates — like white bread and white rice — because they get in the way of the serotonin processing system and spike blood sugar, said Hart. All of these kinds of foods, which are often thought of as “comfort foods,” can ultimately make someone feel even worse, because they disrupt processes that regulate mood.
The best food that people should aim to eat, according to Hart, are good-quality proteins and good-quality fats — think olive oil, coconut oil, fish, nuts, and pumpkin seeds. Eating fresh, natural, and whole foods like fruits and veggies also supports mental health.
While these suggestions probably come as no surprise — these are also the best and worst foods in the weight-loss world — it can be helpful to know that making healthy swaps is bigger than simply dropping numbers on the scale. What we eat affects every component of our lives, and a shift toward a healthier lifestyle has the ability to positively impact all kinds of health conditions — physical and mental alike.