Although nutrition is still considered a “young” science, it is one that resonates with many. Interest in nutrition and how eating impacts our health is of great interest to people of varying ages and health histories. While much attention within nutrition remains on physical health, the influence on mental health is equally valuable.
Nutrition is the sum of its parts. What we eat over time, and other lifestyle factors such as stress management, exercise, and sleep all play a role in our physical and mental health. One of the best ways to improve our health through nutrition is adopting a big picture perspective, and keeping our focus broad. Taking into consideration how our overall lifestyle contributes to health, and then taking steps to make the best changes for our personal goals.
As you’re making changes to your nutrition, consider the idea of being inclusive rather than exclusive with regards to nutrition, by adding in rather than taking away. Try new foods, look for new sources of inspiration such as cookbooks or magazines, find a helpful meal planning system, and strive to make eating enjoyable. Eating at regular intervals keeps our energy levels in balance, and in turn helps our focus and attention. Mood can change when we are overly hungry, too full, or ignoring our physical cues altogether. Cultivate mindfulness when eating, and tune in to how you feel physically and emotionally. Make note of what foods and combinations of foods feel energizing, and what leaves you sluggish.
While there are many nutrients associated with improving mental health and mood, such as omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium and the B vitamins folate and B12, it is the overall intake and lifestyle that has the greatest impact. If we’re eating a variety of foods, and enjoying what we eat, we are more likely to meet our various nutrient needs. In addition, if we are caring for ourselves through adequate sleep, moving our bodies, and managing our stress, we are in a better position to make healthful decisions about food.
Research does not always indicate a cause and effect, but can often make associations with nutrient intake and changes in specific symptoms. For example, omega-3 fatty acids have been widely studied for their anti-inflammatory properties, and their link to decreasing depression symptoms. Vitamin B12 supports neurologic function, and may benefit mood. Folate, also a B vitamin, is associated with depression if levels are too low. If you have concerns about a specific nutrient playing a role in improving your mental health, such as taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements for symptoms of depression, talk with your health care providers. Including a Registered Dietitian (RD) as part of your health care team could help clarify these concerns, and provide individualized information about your health and overall nutrition needs.
Making changes to our eating habits is a process that takes time and perseverance. Paying attention to your body, and your needs is one aspect of care that can translate to good health, both physically and mentally.
About the Contributor
Samantha Lewandowski is the Nutritional Care Coordinator of Outpatient Services at Sheppard Pratt’s Center for Eating Disorders. A registered dietician, she received her BS in Nutrition from the University of Delaware and her Masters in Health Promotion Management from The American University. Her previous experience includes providing clinical nutrition services at a long term care and rehab facility and providing health promotion services for an employee wellness program. Samantha joined the Center for Eating Disorders staff in 2006, and her main role is working one-on-one with patients in the outpatient setting.
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