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Eating for Your Mental Health

Welcome to our second article in the “Living well with learning online” series! Now that you are settling into this long road ahead of learning and working through Zoom, you might be starting to wonder how you are going to stay sane while spending all day staring at a screen. And the answer is that it isn’t necessarily going to be easy. While getting to sleep in more and saving time on commuting or long walks between classes on campus is a bonus, this also means that we aren’t as active as we are used to and we have to be intentional about socializing. But the good news is that food plays a commonly unknown role in our overall brain and mental health, and since we are spending more time in the kitchen than normal, we can make sure we get these foods in our diets! This week, we are going to focus in on the important relationship between food and mental health. After all, nutrition is medicine!

When talking about how our food influences our brain and mood, Molly emphasized how much sugar can influence our mood and energy swings. If we fuel ourselves with nothing but dessert, we might experience a brief sugar high, but what comes with that is a crash afterwards. In fact, there has been significant recent research on the relationship between diets high in added sugar and chronic health conditions later in life, including Dementia and Alzheimer’s. Essentially, too much sugar can come in and wreak havoc on our bodies, causing increased levels of inflammation and impairing cognitive function. The secret is to eat a diet that maintains a constant blood sugar level.

But before I go too far, let me emphasize that this does not mean you can’t have dessert or that all sugar is bad. As always, moderation is the name of the game when it comes to health and nutrition.

Rather than indulging in a large quantity of a sugary food, try pairing it with something more sustainable that contains protein and/or good fats. This way, you will end up eating less added sugar, while still getting some nutritional value. The most common example would be chocolate and peanut butter – the chocolate gets your sugar fix (as we are all chronically addicted to sugar) while the peanut butter provides a source of good fats that your body needs, along with protein. When eating to benefit your mental health, you don’t necessarily have to cut anything out of your diet; instead think about what you can add in to make things better. While we may be used to the idea that a snickers bar and a coke are the best thing to sit down and write a paper with, it’s time to rethink how you can find a better balance to keep you focused and energized.

Outside of desserts, healthy fats are super important for everyone, whether your goal is to increase your ability to concentrate in class, be more efficient in getting work done, or reducing anxiety or other mental illness symptoms. You can find omega-3 fatty acids in foods such as nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocados, fish, and eggs. And the good news is that you don’t have to go out of your way to get these foods in your diets. If you don’t already, you may want to try making eggs or avocado toast for breakfast, eating a handful of nuts (you can even make them chocolate-covered nuts) for an afternoon snack, or cooking salmon for dinner. Even easier, when you make vegetables or meats, throw olive oil into the pan to increase both the taste and nutritional value. Generally speaking, olive oil is a staple in many recipes, so this is an important ingredient to always have on hand. I will also highlight that eggs have choline in them, which is an added bonus nutrient that works to regulate memory and mood (read up on our article titled “Brain Foods Week 3” to learn more).

Another key point when focusing on boosting mental health is to make sure you are eating the full rainbow. The greater the variety of colorful fruits and vegetables that you are eating regularly, the more likely you are to be getting everything your brain needs. In general, the darker the vegetable, the more nutrients it has. The better job you can do of eating a meal that consists of the classic protein, carb and vegetable, the better off you will be. Often, the people that suffer the most from mental health as a result of their diet, don’t follow this rule and find themselves eating high amounts of sugars that aren’t balanced by the rest of their plate.

One final note that Molly heavily emphasizes is the need to drink water! It may sound obvious to some, but dehydration can lead to major problems, both on a smaller and larger scale. People who do not get enough daily water put themselves at risk for decreased concentration and inability to work efficiently, on top of larger chronic health issues that include mental health. It is also important to note that drinks with caffeine or large amounts of sugar actually dehydrate us! Often times, we feel sluggish and turn to coffee to boost our energy, but this actually isn’t helping as much as it should because the root of our problem is fatigue due to dehydration. As a general rule, you want to make sure that you are drinking at least half of your body weight in ounces per day, but the more the merrier. Water can be a hidden weapon for everything from productivity to keeping our sanity to increasing energy levels, so do not let this trivial matter hold you back!

Finally, as Molly pointed out, the reality is that there is no magic supplement or pill to solve all of our problems; if there was, everyone would be taking it. Instead, the best way to fuel both your body and your brain for success is by eating everything in moderation. Don’t ask yourself what you can eliminate from your diet, but instead focus on what you can add in. This will help you prevent the major peaks and valleys that can come with sugar highs and lows, and thus keep your feet grounded for everything that comes your way. As we all know more than ever before, the future is unpredictable, so the least we can do is prepare ourselves (in more ways than one) by getting quality nutritional value through foods. Drink lots of water and get your healthy fats and you just might even be able to stay awake through zoom class!

This article was written with the help of Molly Devine, Registered Dietitian and Owner of MSD Nutrition.

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