You Are What You Eat: How Nutrition Affects Mental Health

 We have all heard the old saying “you are what you eat.” This is especially true while the brain is developing in children and teens. Good nutrition significantly affects our mental health, it increases alertness, clear thinking, concentration and attention. New evidence suggests that diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health. Unhealthy diets and food insecurities can cause depression, emotional problems, and social struggles as well. In children with unhealthy diets, we see they are more susceptible to psychiatric symptoms. 

Is it inflamation?

Sugar and processed foods lead to inflammation in the body and brain. Science shows that the inflammatory effects of certain diets might explain the relationship between diet and mental health. Several mental health conditions (anxiety, depression, mood disorders) appear to have links with increased levels of inflammation. Foods like sweets, high fat dairy products, butter, high fat gravy, and refined grains can increase depression. Certain additives and dyes can increase hyperactivity and anxiety, while also decreasing concentration and attention span.

First Hand Experience

I personally learned this with my son when he was around 2 years old. When he would eat anything like skittles, starburst, lucky charm cereal, or fruit roll ups he would get a wide red streak on the side of his face. I took him to his pediatrician, this was in 2001 mind you, and I was told that the red streak was from him chewing and stimulating nerves in his cheek. As a young mom, I did not know any different and took what the doctor said and went on. Fast forward ten-twelve years, I read an article on red dye that is in certain foods and how it affects behavior in kids! I realized then that my son had these behaviors after he would eat something that contained red dye. 

Less Sugar, More Veggies

We know for fact that nutrition impacts everything from a child’s growth, mood, behavior and learning. A diet rich in nutrients will decrease mood swings and improve focus. One of the main culprits to unhealthy eating is sugar. Studies suggest that children who eat more fruits and vegetables are more likely to have a better sense of mental well-being. The belief is that healthy diets reduce inflammation and antioxidants reduce risk of anxiety and depression. 

Healthy Foods That Increase Mental Well Being: 

  • fruits 

  • vegetables 

  • whole grains 

  • olive oil 

  • fish 

  • low fat dairy

  • antioxidants 

  • nuts 

  • legumes 

  • healthy fats 

Martha J. Hollingsworth, LPC 

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