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Can Food Improve Our Mental Health? These Nutritionists Say Yes — Here Are A Few Meal Options To Try

October 9, 2020
Photo Credit: Jovo Jovanovic

2020 has been a tough year for mental health. A survey conducted by the CDC found that 40% of U.S. adults reported dealing with some sort of mental health issue this year, so if you’ve been dealing with higher than usual levels of anxiety or depression, know that you’re not alone.

While we always advise anyone struggling with their mental health to get the professional help they need — teletherapy is a great option if you can’t see your therapist in person! — there are lifestyle tweaks you can make to supplement any bigger work you may be doing. Or if your mental health issues are minor, those tweaks may be enough.

Can Food Improve Our Mental Health?

While there are many ways to define mental health, for the purposes of this article we’re taking a closer look at foods and meals that help stabilize our mood by helping to keep energy levels high, encourage a restorative night of sleep, and keep nervous energy at bay throughout the day. We chatted with two nutritionists to find out exactly what those foods are — here’s what they had to say.

What to eat in the morning: Food that give you a boost of energy

Whether or not you’ve noticed it, there are certain foods that make you tired, and not in a good “I’m going to get nine hours of sleep now” way. We’ve all experienced the unpleasant, anxiety-inducing buzz of a sugar high and subsequent crash, which can make any existing mental health issues worse. In order to eat to support your mental health, it’s important to opt for foods that give you an authentic, lasting boost of energy. When our body feels energized, the mind is likely to follow.

While coffee is great for a boost of energy, we don’t all react well to it. For many, it makes anxiety worse. Luckily, there are a lot of foods out there that help with energy.

“An ideal mood boosting and energizing breakfast would be eggs with a piece of whole grain toast, nut butter and berries,” says Maggie Michalczyk, RDN and author of The Great Big Pumpkin Cookbook. “This breakfast is really well rounded with protein, fiber and good carbs that will not only help to keep you full until lunch, but give you good balanced energy without a blood sugar crash shortly after eating thanks to the combination of nutrients.”

She adds that eggs are one of the only food sources of vitamin D. “Vitamin D is also known as the sunshine vitamin, and it’s crucial for our mood. Don’t skip the yolks because that’s where the vitamin D is found!”

What to eat for lunch: Foods that help stabilize mood

Assuming you’ve had an energizing breakfast, lunch can be centered on foods that keep your mood stable. Research shows that Omega 3s — which many healthy fats contain — are great for alleviating feelings of depression and boosting mood.

With that in mind, Kylene Bogden, RDN and Love Wellness advisor, suggests loading up on high-quality protein along with a healthy dose of plant-based fat. “I’d go for grilled chicken over a bed of dark greens, add your favorite nuts, seeds, a scoop of hummus on the side and drizzle oil and vinegar on top for salad dressing.”

Read more: The Truth About Fat: It’s Not The Enemy After All

What to eat for a snack: Foods that boost energy & ease anxiety

“The 4 p.m. slump” is real. It’s a time of day when many of us have a decent amount left to do, but quitting time is only a few hours away — and our minds are verging on exhausted. Our willpower is depleted, causing many of us to reach for sugary foods that make our anxiety worse and make it difficult to get through the end of the day. So for an afternoon snack, it’s really crucial to avoid sugar and load up on protein and fiber.

“A snack that is low in sugar and a combination of protein and fiber can definitely give you good energy plus keep anxiety at bay,” says Michalczyk. “Something like a pastry made up of carbs and sugar will spike your blood sugar, which can definitely bring about feelings of anxiety (something I’ve definitely experienced myself), which is why it’s important to pick something with protein and fiber that will provide steady energy and not spike your blood sugar in the same way.”

Her pick? “A handful of nuts and an apple or a low sugar, high protein yogurt with fresh fruit or nuts on top. As for a drink, I say skip that late afternoon cup of coffee and opt for a cup of matcha instead. Matcha contains l-theanine, an amino acid that promotes an alert calmness instead of the caffeine jitters.”

Need snack ideas? 15 Protein-Packed and Portable Snacks

What to Eat for Dinner: Foods that create calm

Study after study shows that sleep is essential to mental health, and yet when we’re struggling with anxiety or depression, sleep often feels impossible to come by. Eating foods that help create a feeling of calm in the body and mind leading up to bedtime may help sleep come more quickly, and could help you stay asleep longer.

Consider tryptophan, an amino acid famously found in turkey as well as red meat, eggs, fish, and more, which often produces a sleepy feeling, as well as magnesium, which can have a calming effect.

“Swap a little tryptophan-rich ground turkey for beef in your usual meat sauce,” suggests Bogden. “Add a little spinach and pour over chickpea pasta. This combo gives the ultimate dose of magnesium and amino acids needed for sleep.”

Want dessert? “Avoid added sugar and overly processed, packaged foods,” suggests Bogden. Instead, try apple “nachos” for dessert. Slice apples very thinly to mimic chips, drizzle with your favorite toppings such as warm peanut butter, açaí berries, shredded coconut, and crushed nuts.”

Here’s hoping these healthy — and might we add delicious ideas — provide you with the mental health boost you need.

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