After a long, stressful day, it may be easier to visit a local drive thru for dinner than prepare a home-cooked meal. Sure, we all love an order of salty fries and juicy burgers on the go, but the grogginess and sluggishness that follows isn’t always so satisfying. Many of us know the importance of eating well and exercising to help boost our metabolism and shed unwanted pounds. What’s less commonly discussed, however, are the benefits that both diet and exercise have on our mental health.

In this post, we’ll discuss why eating well and staying active are just as vital to our mental health care as they are to our physical well-being.

How Does Your Diet Affect Mental Health?

When we consume high-calorie, heavily-processed food, our brains don’t receive the nutrients they need to perform at their best. According to Dr. Eva Selhub of Harvard Health Publishing, “Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function—and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.” By incorporating higher-quality foods, you’re providing your brain—and your body—the quality nutrients it needs to function at its best, which in turn makes you feel better.

While it is convenient to grab fast food or pre-packaged meals, opting for these high-caloric meals negatively influences your physical and mental health. Dr. Selhub also discusses the significance of gut health for the body and brain, noting that the good “bacteria play an essential role in your health. They protect the lining of your intestines and ensure they provide a strong barrier against toxins and ‘bad’ bacteria,” while also improving inflammation, absorption of nutrients, and the neural connection between your gut and brain.

Therefore, eating cleaner foods allows your gut to build good bacteria and heal your body. According to Dr. Selhub, studies comparing diets from different regions revealed that more traditional diets (e.g. Japan, the Mediterranean region, etc.) consisting of more fruits, veggies, seafood and fermented foods, are at a 25-35% lower risk of depression than Westernized diets (e.g. U.S., Canada, etc.) that are higher in refined sugar, lean meats, dairy and processed grains. These traditional higher-quality food choices encourage and establish good gut health, which positively affects our bodily functions and mental health.

Tips for a Healthier Approach to Eating

Changing your diet may cause you to feel anxious or overwhelmed. Remember, it doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing approach. Take your time with it, and be patient with yourself.

  • Try making one to three consistent small changes at first. By focusing on smaller daily habits (e.g. drinking more water, incorporating vegetables in your breakfast, and limiting the processed grains you consume during lunches), you reduce the chances of being overwhelmed with too many changes; therefore, you’re more likely to stick with it.
  • Replace your high-calorie, nutrient-deficient drinks with water. Sodas, fancy flavored coffee beverages, and energy drinks are all filled with sugar and empty calories. Start by replacing one of your daily caloric beverages with water. Get zesty with it by putting some fresh lemon or lime wedges to infuse it!
  • Try to eat as “clean” as possible. Try making Tuesdays and Thursdays your cleaner dinner days, when you consume less refined sugars and processed grains or limit dairy products.
  • When grocery shopping, a good rule of thumb is to shop the outside of your grocery store first. All of the processed foods are often found in the middle aisles of your store. By sticking to the perimeter, you focus on grabbing produce, meats, eggs, and other fresher, cleaner foods to enjoy throughout the week.

Establishing new habits, especially related to diet can make us feel anxious. Remember, you don’t have to take it all on at once. The littlest change can impact your physical and mental health, and you are worth the self-investment!