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Sure, we all know that what we eat is important for our physical health. But can what we eat also affect how we feel? Let’s explore how eating better can help us feel better—with less anxiety, stress, and depression.
Interestingly, there’s a whole new field dedicated to this question: “Nutritional psychiatrists” counsel patients on how better eating may help lead to better mental health.
Specifically, Nutritional Psychiatry aims to provide “a comprehensive, cohesive, and scientifically rigorous evidence base to support a shift in thinking around the role of diet and nutrition in mental health.”
But what exactly does it mean to feel better? What are you seeking? Relief from chronic anxiety or depression? Happiness, sharper thinking, more energy, improved sleep? Emotional resilience, increased ability to stand up for yourself? Help recovering from substance abuse or an eating disorder? Managing PTSD? Protecting an aging brain from dementia?
And there are so many types of health—mental health, emotional health, cognitive health, etc. To make it simpler, I’ll group it all under “psychological health.”
You can find thousands of article and research about all of these topics. Yet be careful: Most of these studies fall into the category of what scientists call “observational research.” The researchers recruit subjects, ask them to fill out surveys/questionnaires or submit to interviews at various points, then observe what happens over the duration of the study.
This kind of research doesn’t produce strong enough evidence to show causation (e.g., “following the Mediterranean Diet will prevent or cure depression”). That’s why in careful science reporting you’ll find phrases such as “may” or “could.” That doesn’t mean observational research to date isn’t useful, especially when the findings from many well-run studies align. Plus, it’s often a first step to more rigorous research.
Just read carefully!
So…even though it’s complicated…
Of course, you can eat to boost your psychological health!
Numerous observational studies have linked eating plants (e.g., the Mediterranean Diet) that emphasize “nutrient-dense”—whole, unprocessed or lightly processed—foods help stabilize or improve people’s psychological health, along with cardiovascular health, improved immunity, and other physical benefits. One recent model for improved rigor is the MIND diet, a combination of the DASH and Mediterranean diets.
So, What to Eat to Feel Better?
These health-promoting regimens—the best evidence we have for a dietary approach to comprehensive health—focus on foods close to their original state, “nutrient-dense” because they still retain most of the vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, and phytochemicals the original plant or animal produced.
Beans, chickpeas, or lentils.
Vegetables, especially leafy greens.
Fruits, especially berries.
Fish and poultry.
Nuts and seeds.
Olive oil for cooking and dressings.
A little wine if you drink alcohol. Otherwise plain water.
These healthy diets all minimize foods containing added sugars, salt, and fat, ingredients you wouldn’t use in your own cooking, and “ultra-processed” foods. They also suggest limiting butter/margarine, cheese, red meat, and fried foods.
More Tips for Stress-Free Eating
A few additional tips experts recommend for healthier, stress-free eating:
Choose foods you enjoy, rather than going for expert-recommended healthy foods that don’t match your tastes and culinary traditions.
Eat fewer meals away from home. Also, avoid “dashboard dining” except in emergencies. Carry a healthy snack to avoid impulse cravings when you’re on the go. (My go-to? A little bag of mixed nuts.)
Learn to cook. Healthy food can be as fast as fast food, and much more affordable, tasty, and nutritious.
Have on hand a few healthy comfort foods for when you’re feeling down.
Try to eat often with others whose company you enjoy.
Finally: Frequent exercise—whatever you can and will do—is as essential to good psychological health as a nutrient-rich diet. They fit together tongue and groove.
Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles