Remember the saying ‘you are what you eat’? It applies to mental and emotional health too. Your eating habits affect not only your physical health but also how you feel about yourself and your mood.
In this modern age, where there is a constant supply of conflicting information about what you should and shouldn’t eat, our feelings and relationship with food can be damaged.
Read on to find out more about how what you eat affects your mental health.
Foods, drinks, and eating habits that are not good for your mental health
- Processed foods/Junk foods
Since not everyone lives on a farm or near a farmers’ market, most of the food we eat nowadays has undergone some processing. Fortunately, not all of these are bad for your health.
However, those containing high amounts of sugar and other artificial ingredients do not have much nutritional value and could be harmful to you. Such foods include refined cereals, chips, cheese, baked goods, white bread, and ice cream.
You probably already know the effects of these foods on your physical health, but how do processed foods affect your mental health?
One of the main reasons we like to eat junk foods is because they are addictive. You get a dopamine rush when you eat it, and in search of that feeling, you keep reaching for more.
According to studies, people with a poor diet containing mainly processed and junk foods are at a higher risk of developing depression and anxiety. This could be because eating these foods leads to weight gain and inflammation of the body and brain which can cause mental health issues.
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- Caffeinated drinks
Have you ever wondered why so many people say they can’t start their day before taking coffee? This is because it is a stimulant drug, thus, addictive.
Some people will even suffer withdrawal symptoms when they do not take it.
Taking coffee in moderate proportions is safe; it will give you the kick of energy you probably require to start your day.
However, heavy drinking can have side effects such as; poor sleeping habits, anxiety, nervousness, headaches, increased blood pressure, and nausea.
It is no secret that alcohol is bad for your health, both physically and mentally. It worsens existing mental health problems and can make you develop new ones if you do not have them.
Even though you might feel relaxed and in a good mood when drinking, this is only for a short while.
In the long run, drinking heavily interferes with brain activities and can lead to cognitive impairment and decline. Its effects on neurotransmitters and serotonin levels in the brain have led to alcohol being linked to depression and anxiety.
Alcohol itself is a depressant, and that’s why you feel depressed as you continue drinking it. If you already suffer from depression, alcohol might interfere with your antidepressants, making it harder to get better.
In case of anxiety, drinking might suppress those feelings for a while, but they will be back, and you might feel worse when the alcohol wears off.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America(ADAA), 20% of those who suffer from social anxiety disorder abuse alcohol or are codependent.
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- Eating too little or too much
It is not only what you eat that affects your mental health but also how much you eat. Food is the fuel for your body, hence if you take too little or too much of it, there are bound to be consequences.
Eating too little depletes your energy and can cause mood swings and worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The effort to prepare and cook food can be too much for a depressed person, and hence one might end up eating whatever is available, whether healthy or unhealthy, too little or too much.
Overeating, especially foods that aren’t nutritious, can lead to weight gain, sluggish thinking, and other mental issues such as stress, depression, disgust, and guilt. It becomes a cycle of depression and overeating;
You eat too much > you get depressed > then you overeat to cope with your feelings > and back to depression.
You might also develop a Binge-Eating Disorder, which is associated with eating a lot of food in a short amount of time until you are too full to be comfortable.
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- Emotional eating
Are you the type of person who heads to the kitchen whenever you are happy, sad, bored, or stressed? This is called emotional eating or ‘eating your feelings’. You eat not because you are hungry but in response to an emotion.
Often, when you eat to cope with difficult emotions, you won’t make the rational decision to eat healthy snacks. Instead, you will most likely choose something sweet to soothe and make you feel better.
It is only after eating that you start to experience feelings of guilt and self-loathing for indulging. If you were feeling stressed before eating, it worsens because you now have a new problem to stress about.
You rely on food to lift your mood instead of using it as a source of nutrients for your body leading to an unhealthy relationship with food.
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Foods, drinks, and eating habits that help improve your mental health
Do not get scared. Not all foods are bad for your mental health. Some foods and eating habits you should adopt to help protect and improve your mental health include;
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet
Some foods which are good for your mental health and should be included in your diet include; fruits, legumes, green leafy vegetables, lean proteins, and complex carbohydrates.
Furthermore, according to research, foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil, nuts, seeds, and plant oil, can help to improve some aspects of Bipolar Disorder (depression phase) and ADHD and may ease postpartum depression.
Drink enough water for your individual needs to stay hydrated. Also, limit intake of excess caffeinated drinks and alcohol.
- Practice mindful eating
It involves using mindfulness meditation practices while eating. You use all your senses to savor food and stay in the present during the eating process, unlike mindless overeating or emotional eating.
You are aware of what you eat, when you eat, and how you eat it. You eat slowly while savoring and appreciating your food.
Stay alert to your levels of fullness throughout the eating process to avoid over or under-eating.
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- Intermittent fasting
Just like the name suggests, this involves periods of fasting for particular hours or days of the week to detox your body.
When fasting, your body has fewer toxins and fewer digestion processes; thus, more energy is available for the brain to use. This improves brain health and its overall functioning.
- Limit buying junk foods and instead have healthy snacks in the house to eat when you feel hungry.
- Don’t go shopping when hungry because that will make you easily tempted to buy junk food.
The role of diet in mental health is usually underestimated as most people focus on its effects on physical health. What we eat has a profound impact on not only our bodies but our brains too.
You now know which foods and eating habits to avoid and which ones you can adopt to protect your mental health. They will lift your moods, and you will no longer feel guilty or depressed for eating.
NOTE: If you are struggling or need someone to talk to, please reach out to a friend, family member, or call these hotlines for help: Suicide prevention hotlines for all countries.
This is the third installment in the Mental Health Awareness Month Series by Aisles of Life. If you missed the other posts, read them here;
- 10 Signs You Need to Take a Mental Health Day (and how to spend it) | MENTAL HEALTH AND WORK
- The Effects of Social Media Use on Mental Health | MENTAL HEALTH AND THE INTERNET
- The Impact of Video Games, Music, TV Shows, and Movies on Mental Health | MENTAL HEALTH AND MASS MEDIA
- 10 Habits You Should Adopt to Protect Your Mental Health
Read more articles from Aisles of Life here.