There are a few topics in our culture that seem to beg an exorbitant amount of attention for the wrong reasons. One of those topics is diet. There are so many ideas about what a *right* diet is. Paleo? Atkins? Vegan? Vegetarian? Pescatarian? Keto? Jenny Craig? Low Fat? Gluten Free? South Beach? Weight Watchers? Blood Type Diet? Histamine Intolerance? Dairy Free? Or perhaps you’ve been looking into a Master Cleanse…
I can’t tell you which of the above diets is good for you. Or which are a little outdated (Does anyone still do Jenny Craig?). I’m not a nutritionist. There are people for that.
What I’m here to tell you is about the connection between what we put in our bodies and how that affects our mental health. When it comes to recommending diet, you’ll most likely hear me recommend something that meets the following criteria:
- It doesn’t stress you out, bring up anxiety, or create an obsessive behavior to do (though sometimes changes can be emotionally trying at first).
- It consists of real food.
- Eating isn’t a way of numbing out difficult feelings (though small amounts of dark chocolate can help regulate hormones) or a means to control or punish oneself.
Our eating habits are learned young, based on how our parents ate, the culture of food in our family, and our own relationship with it. If you want to know more, try the book First Bite. Just because they’re learned young, though, doesn’t mean they’re out of our control.
We can learn to take back our relationship to food.
Too often we don’t pay attention when we eat. Perhaps we zone out on our phones, computers over “lunch break,” or sit in front of the TV (we’ll talk about electronics next week). Rarely do we really taste our food.
When was the last time you intentionally and mindfully consumed a food, pausing before eating, during chewing, after swallowing, 20 minutes later, 4 hours later, and two days later to notice the various responses your body had to the food?
Some food might feel amazing during the tasting/chewing part, and the satisfaction might even continue 20 minutes later. But what about later that day, or a couple days later? Does that food contribute to your body feeling healthy, energized, nourished, and strong? Did that food’s benefits disappear once the sugar high subsided? Or worse, did it contribute to worsening depressive symptoms?
*Body Scan Meditations can be helpful in learning how your body responds to food*
It’s true, there is a link between worsening depressive symptoms and high refined sugars. Here’s a quick and dirty list of foods that may deserve a closer look at how they might negatively impact your mood:
- Sugar. Some research suggests that it can increase depression, as well as risks for diabetes and dementia. Remember how earlier we talked about how depression wants you to do what makes depression stronger? Ever crave sweets to try and stamp out a bad mood? Sugar is in way more than you think. Even “healthy” cereals can have too much! Try and stay under 5g of sugar, to start.
- *Note: this includes artificial sweeteners.
- Fast and Fried food. The Journal of Public Health Nutrition states that eating these foods can increase your risk for developing depression. It’s also thought that clogging of arteries can reduce blood flow to the brain, which impedes function.
- Caffeine. Too much caffeine can impact your sleep and create the jitters, which could trick your brain into thinking it’s anxious. Try to cut down to one cup of coffee or tea each morning if you’re a heavy user.
- High Sodium and Highly Processed foods. They take a lot more energy for your body to process and can contribute to fatigue: a symptom of depression. There is also a lot out there about how preservatives, food dyes, and additives could contribute to mental health and behavior disruption. I’ll let you do the research on that one.
What about foods that are good for you and your fight against depression? Here are some foods thought to boost mood:
- Dark Leafy Greens – Nutrient Dense and Inflammation Fighting
- Berries – Antioxidants have been shown in some studies to reduce depressive symptoms.
- Foods containing Folic Acid
- Broccoli, Beans, Tomatoes, Bananas, etc.
- Foods high in Omega 3s – supports brain function
- Flax, Chia, Edamame, Walnuts, etc.
- Avocados – They’re just a powerhouse.
- Protein Rich Foods Boost Energy & Alertness
- Complex Carbs can help boost mood, too. There is some thought that carb cravings come from low serotonin. But reach for whole grains! (If your bread responds like tempurpedic, it’s probably not whole grains).
- Drink A LOT OF WATER. I like to drink as many ounces as I am pounds. Pretending I’m 100lbs (I’m not), I’d strive for 100 oz. That’s just me. The big guys recommend about 100 oz for women and 120 oz for men each day.
Okay, Danielle. Enough lists. What is the point?
My point is that your body deserves your respect. It’s worth honoring and loving your body by fueling it with what it needs to function at its best. If your body is suffering, how can your mind feel good? They’re connected.
You might notice I didn’t recommend that you increase your consumption of frozen goods like taquitos, hotpockets, or veggies in cheese sauce. Or maybe that’s just what my depression ate. I also didn’t recommend you eat more potato chips, french fries, or soda. Are you surprised?
Of course not. You know what is good for you, and you still don’t always eat it. My husband is a big fan of the “I’d rather die early and be happy eating what I want” mantra. If you want to tell yourself this, that’s fine. But I’m going to just leave this one question here…
are you really happy?
Since we’re talking about what we put in our bodies, let’s just throw one more thing out there. We all know alcohol is a depressant, right? And that when we’re depressed, drinking only increases symptoms. But did you know that you have to be careful with any recreational drugs, including marijuana? Marijuana has been shown to play a role in the onset of schizophrenia in those with predispositions or other mental health issues. Additionally, withdrawal symptoms from marijuana include anxiety, depression, and irritability that can last months.
In the name of not using food to numb out our feelings, being mindful about the good things we put into our bodies, and dedicating ourselves to honoring our bodies… until depression is a thing in the (distant) past for you, probably best to steer clear of alcohol, marijuana, and the like.
The goal with all of this is simple: consume more of what feels good because it is actually good for your body. Consume less of what feels good because it helps you numb out difficult emotions. Honor your body by feeding it fresh fruits, veggies, lean means, and whole grains. Make little adjustments that feel sustainable and aren’t painful. Uncomfortable, fine. That indicates growth. Painful? Pull back a little.
It’s important that you don’t go into this like a crash diet. We’re not trying to operate under extremes. We’re wanting to make lasting change. Your taste buds can change to appreciate real food, but that takes time. If you want a little treat here or there, it’s not a problem. It’s only a problem when you can either feel the urge to keep eating it or want it when you’re having a rough day.
If you find yourself several days or weeks into a food relapse, it’s not too late to re-commit yourself to living healthier. You also don’t have to drop a ton of money on organics if that isn’t feasible or important to you. Start with limiting your time in the aisles at the middle of the store.
Just like we don’t want to extreme crash diet, we don’t want to extreme calorie count either. Love your body in moderation. As a woman, if your caloric intake is at the bare minimum of 1,200 per day, your brain is operating in survival mode. It can’t thrive and recover from depression when it’s worried about whether it’ll live the day. Recommended calories for women are in the 1,600-2,400 per day range, whereas men are in the 2,000-3,000 range.
Let’s work on worrying less about calories and more about feeding your body what it needs to be healthy.
As always, if you’re wanting to make big changes or are worried about your health, consult a doctor.
Does that feel like a lot?
Take care of yourself out there. We’ll see you next week. And remember, keep up with your exercise, meditation, sh*t owning, and healthy foods.