Salisbury University students on campus

Eat Your Way to a Better Mood

By University Dietitian Terry Passano, RDN, LDN, CLT

Students come to me distressed about depression, anxiety and the often-associated digestion problems. They want solutions and have decided their eating habits and lifestyle may be the place to start. They are right on target.

To bring this fact home, I tell them about a study on undergraduate students. Researchers recruited students with mild to moderate depression and anxiety and a not-so-great diet. One group acted as the control, so no intervention was taken. The other was given instructions on improving their diet. The researchers determined the diet change group had a significant decrease in depression and anxiety symptoms, concluding that diet affects depression and anxiety and can improve symptoms in as little as three weeks!

This is far from the only study to show such results. There is the Smiles Trial, published in 2017. Researchers set out to determine if improving one’s diet would also improve mental health. Their results were an absolute yes! Both studies tested a Mediterranean-style diet. Participants who improved their diet the most experienced the more significant mental health benefit. These are just a couple of examples of the many studies that link diet to mental health.

Eating a Mediterranean-style diet reduces your risk of depression before you ever experience it. Plus, if you have symptoms of depression, eating a Mediterranean-style diet will help improve symptoms. This is the same diet repeatedly proven to reduce the risk of chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer.

Some of us think of food as fuel for the body. Okay, some of us think of food as less than that. I see it in terms of information. Essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals are used in complex reactions in our personal biochemistry. Fiber and some starches feed friendly gut microbes that support our health.

Food has a direct effect on how we think, feel and function. When we eat highly processed and fried food, instead of the body saying, “Yeah! Get that stuff to her brain. We’ve been studying a lot!” It says, “Joe, get that backhoe over here and get this crap outta here, now!”

So, what “information” does your body want to sparkle your mood? These researchers focused on healthy fats, whole foods, phytonutrients and avoiding processed foods.

In the study done on undergraduate students, referred to above, these foods were cut back:

  • Refined carbs, white flour as in bread, pizza dough, bagels and pastry
  • Sugar-sweetened iced tea, lemonade, “juices” that are not 100% juice, Gatorade, desserts
  • Fatty or processed meats: pastrami, pepperoni, scrapple, sausage, fried foods
  • Soft drinks: regular and diet

Participants ate these foods instead:

  • Vegetables – 5 servings a day (1 serving is 1/2 c. cooked or 1 c. raw) Go beyond the leafy greens and enjoy red radishes, yellow beets, purple grapes, orange sweet potatoes – you get the idea – eat a variety of colorful vegetables and fruits.
  • Fruits 2-3 per day – Go for color variety.
  • Whole grain bread or cereal – 3 servings a day (1 slice of bread or ½ cup of most grains)
  • Fish – 3 times a week
  • Nuts and seeds – (3 T. a day) Includes nut butters, all nuts and seeds like sunflower, almond, sesame, pumpkin and peanut (technically a legume, but who’s counting).
  • Olive oil – (2 T. a day) This may sound like a lot, but think of all that ranch dressing on your salad. Substituting olive oil and vinegar delivers deep nutrition instead of questionable fats.
  • Lean protein – At each meal: chicken, fish, lean beef or pork
  • Cinnamon and turmeric were used in the study, but any herb or spice will give you much-needed antioxidants and phytonutrients.

These foods contain phytonutrients that wiggle into your mitochondria and fortify your immunity. They contain nutrients recommended to prevent depression by practitioners in the new field of nutritional psychiatry. They also are foods enjoyed by those on a classic Mediterranean diet, the diet that repeatedly proves its support for our physical and mental health and disease prevention.

These foods bump up our B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, C, magnesium, zinc and selenium, all of which are associated with better mood.

They are also anti-inflammatory. People with depression tend to have higher levels of inflammation. Those who eat a more anti-inflammatory diet and avoid sugary and processed foods have reduced inflammation and reduced risks for depression.

These foods support a healthy microbiome which in turn supports the gut-brain-microbiome axis. The gut microbiome is composed of microbes, including bacteria, that create metabolites, neurotransmitters and other compounds that modulate communication between the gut and brain. A healthy gut supports healthy communication with the brain.

“Depression is closely related with the health condition of the gut-brain axis, and maintaining/restoring the normal condition of gut microbiota helps in the prevention and therapy of mental health.” This is a quote from a study of depression and the gut-brain-microbiota axis. For more on the microbiome and what it is, check this information out.

Imagine the challenge your body faces when you’re stressed and anxious and eating and sleeping poorly! Being stressed causes an increased need for nutrients, including those that support neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine. These same nutrients including vitamin C, B12, choline and others are also used in a plethora of other body functions. Diets that are high in processed and fast foods and are low in these vital nutrients. Whole foods such as whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean fresh proteins, herbs and spices give us the support we need to feel our best.

So, trade that plate of beige food for one filled with colorful vegetables and whole grains to brighten your plate and put a glow on your mood.

To help brighten that plate, we have revitalized Plato’s Plate in the Commons Marketplace with our Simply Fine menu. This menu consists of whole foods, fresh vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, both vegetarian and not. It is allergen conscious, with most dishes being free of the top nine allergens. Proteins include fish. It is also designed to be friendly to the gut by avoiding some foods and by providing foods that support a healthy microbiome. This, in turn, supports your health, both physical and psychological. Our chef has designed an assortment of flavorful and exciting sauces to top these vitality-boosting foods. This way, you choose the flavor palate with which to crown your wholesome plate.

If you’d like some motivation and see how simple and delicious this can be, contact me. I provide personalized research-based nutrition advice for your health, lifestyle and goals.

If you are experiencing severe depression or other mental health issues, you may need additional help beyond food, please see your licensed health care provider.

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