“You are what you eat.” This is a phrase you’ve likely heard many times, but have you stopped to think about its application in your own life?
It’s no secret that eating well is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. The above phrase has taught us that, along with plenty of scientific evidence, eating poorly equates to health issues. However, what most people consider when they think of diet and the food they put in their bodies is how it translates to the appearance of their bodies. It’s common knowledge that if you eat nutritionally-void food like that from Mcdonald’s regularly, it will cause you to gain weight and also will put you at risk of all kinds of diseases.
While that is true and important to understand, what many people fail to realize is that healthy eating has an effect on more than just your physical appearance and health, but your mental health as well.
And so, with that, the phrase “you are what you eat” gains a whole new meaning.
The Importance of Gut Health
Let’s start with the gut. Over 70% of the immune system exists in the gut, which means that the food you put in your body plays a major role in the functioning of your immune system. When you pump your body full of processed foods and your idea of nutrition consists of sugars, hydrogenated fats, starches, food coloring, and more, you are putting your body at risk of inflammation and disease.
So, it’s key to eat a diet full of nutrient-dense, whole, unprocessed food in order to keep your gut healthy, to reduce inflammation and to keep your immune system strong.
However, your gut health isn’t only important to your immunity, but also to your mood. Scientists have found that 95% of our serotonin receptors are in the gut. Your gut is home to loads of bacteria (we’re hoping only the good kind) that play a role in the production of different types of neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers responsible for carrying messages from your gut to your brain. Among those neurotransmitters are dopamine and serotonin. This is why the gut is nicknamed the body’s “second brain.”
The more healthy food you feed your body, the more good bacteria is created, which then means your body is better able to produce those neurotransmitters that are responsible for your mood. However, when you fill your body with junk food that has no real nutrition, you create a breeding ground for bad bacteria which causes inflammation. In turn, this hinders neurotransmitter production which leads to issues with mood.
If you think this is just hearsay, think again. Studies show that inflammation of the gut has a direct correlation to mental health issues including anxiety and depression. That’s why places and people who adopt more traditional diets (including Mediterranean and Japanese) have a 25-35% lower risk of depression than those who eat a Western diet full of processed foods. These discoveries have led to the creation of a new field of study called nutritional psychiatry, which is the study of how gut health and diet play a role in mood.
How to Improve Your Mood With Food
The best way to use food to positively affect your mood is to focus on the following things.
The less processed food you eat, the better. Things such as sugars, starches, and hydrogenated oils lead to an inflammatory response in the body which leads to decreased mood. Foods packed with nutrition promote overall health and mental well-being.
Fresh fruits and vegetables
While fruit juices and vegetable juices are far better than sodas or other processed, sugary drinks, the best way to get your fruits and vegetables is straight from the source. Some juices have added sugars and will do more harm than good.
Fiber is a key part of a healthy diet as it helps your body absorb glucose more slowly, which means you avoid sugar highs and lows. Studies have shown a direct connection between low fiber intake and depression. The best sources of fiber include fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains (if your body allows).
The deficiency of this vitamin is a major worldwide problem. Studies show that over a billion people are deficient in vitamin D, and that may be a reason for issues with mood. Vitamin D helps in the production of the body’s serotonin, which is why you usually feel better after spending a day in the sun. Because the sun isn’t available to all of us all the time, you can get additional vitamin D from adaptogenic mushrooms such as reishi and cordyceps, or a supplement.
As mentioned above, the bacteria in your gut plays a role in your mood. Thus, in order to promote the good bacteria in your gut and thus, your mood, you want to consume fermented foods, which are packed with probiotics. Add sauerkraut, miso, kombucha, and kimchi to your diet whenever possible to boost your good gut bacteria.
Eat at home
As much as eating out is an enjoyable experience, more often than not restaurants use ingredients that are inflammatories, including hydrogenated oils. Thus, to keep your diet in check, try to eat at home as often as possible and use nutrient-dense ingredients and clean oils.
In the modern-day world, it can feel like we always have somewhere we need to be. This can lead to eating quickly, which can also cause inflammation and other gut issues. Try to spend at least 30 minutes eating each meal, and aim to enjoy your food without screens involved. Take the time to think about what you’re eating and how it makes your body feel.
Because 95% of the body’s serotonin receptors are found in the gut, what you put in your gut has a big effect on your serotonin levels. By fueling your body with whole, unprocessed food, you can increase serotonin levels and thus, promote a better mood. By packing your body with processed junk food, you cause inflammation which can lead to all kinds of diseases and health problems, along with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
For optimal moods, consume healthy, unprocessed, and whole foods as much as possible.