It’s no surprise that people’s mental health has been suffering over the past couple of years. When we polled our community last year, the biggest challenge people cited was managing stress, anxiety, and depression during these times. In addition to the direct consequences, mental health challenges can impact other aspects of our health and wellbeing.
Often when we feel stressed or anxious, we tend to reach for those unhealthy “comfort foods”. However, this is actually the time when we should be prioritizing healthy foods even more. The link between diet and mental health is becoming more and more apparent, and nutritional strategies are starting to be used to treat mental health conditions.
Dr. Uma Naidoo, a Harvard Nutritional Psychiatrist and author of This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More, has extensive research and practical experience in the field of nutrition and mental health. In a recent column in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, Dr. Naidoo breaks down some of the most common foods and substances that might contribute to anxiety, and some foods that can help alleviate anxiety, especially in the COVID-19 era. Here is a short recap:
Foods and substances that can induce or worsen anxiety:
Caffeine. In a previous newsletter, we discussed both the positive and negative impacts of caffeine. Caffeine can improve physical and mental performance, and the phytonutrients found in teas and coffee have antioxidant properties. However, caffeine in excess can have negative effects. In addition to disrupting sleep, too much caffeine can lead to anxiety. Dr. Naidoo suggests that this effect could be due to caffeine stimulating a region of the brain that is activated during stress, while down regulating a part of the brain that helps control anxiety. Our mantra is to use caffeine as a tool not a crutch. In other words, instead of relying on caffeine to wake up every day, save it for when you really want to boost your performance. We also recommend limiting your consumption to 200mg per day.
Alcohol. In addition to depressing the immune system, impairing sleep, and causing poor food choices, alcohol consumption (especially excessive drinking) can lead to or worsen anxiety. Alcoholic drinks are also high in sugar, which exacerbates anxiety. Of course alcohol is a social activity, however we suggest limiting your consumption to special occasions as opposed to a daily coping strategy. Dr. Naidoo also suggests that if you are dependent on alcohol, talk to a doctor to manage symptoms of withdrawal.
Artificial sweeteners. Finally, Dr. Naidoo discusses the impact of artificial sweeteners on mood. Artificial sweeteners are found in many processed foods – including common condiments, “diet” drinks, and breakfast cereals – and can negatively impact the microbiome, our gut bacteria. Our microbiome is so important for mental health as it’s responsible for 90% of the serotonin – one of the hormones that make us happy.
Foods and substances that can help reduce anxiety
Fibre. Diets rich in dietary fibre are thought to help reduce the risk of anxiety, stress, and depression. We should be eating between 25-35mg of fibre each day – and Canadians are well below that number. Dietary fibre helps foster the microbiome, reduces inflammation, and increases the production of serotonin and dopamine. So make sure you’re prioritizing high-fibre foods that foster your microbiome such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds.
Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are incredible for decreasing stress, boosting mood, and improving mental focus. Omega-3’s also help foster a healthy gut and are anti-inflammatory. Omega-3’s are found in fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies, algae, and seeds such as flax or chia. C
Fermented foods. Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics which help nurture a good gut environment and decrease anxiety. Add some fermented foods into your diet such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, yogurt, tempeh, and tofu.
These are just a few examples of foods to cut down on and foods to prioritize to decrease anxiety and boost your mental health. The foods we eat can have a significant impact on how we feel – physically and mentally – every day. This is always important, but especially during times of high anxiety. While other lifestyle factors play a role as well, diet is becoming a widely used strategy to improve mental health.
This week’s challenge: Manage your Cravings
It’s one thing to say you’re going to eat healthy when you’re feeling good, but it’s a lot harder to resist those “comfort foods” when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. So what happens when you’re craving that bag of chips or chocolate bar sitting in the cupboard?
Here are a few ideas for you to try out this week:
1. Replace the craving. It’s easier to replace than to cut out things. So if you’re craving dessert, replace it with a fruit. If you’re craving carbs, choose a whole grain option. If you’re craving a sweet drink, try some sparkling water with a squeeze of lemon juice. It might not be exactly what you wanted but it could be enough to satisfy you until the craving passes.
2. Don’t keep sweets and unhealthy snacks in the house. This might sound obvious, but if you don’t buy them, you can’t eat them 🙂 There are always occasions to indulge, but you don’t want to make it an everyday habit.
3. Plan ahead. The more you plan ahead, the better your nutrition will be. We call this ‘Crafting your Fuel Plan’. This means at the beginning of the week, plan every meal you will eat, as well as snacks. Then prep your meals and snacks each night. Even if you work from home, pack your lunch and snacks as if you’re going to work. Then when you get hungry, instead of reaching for that unhealthy snack, you have a healthy snack already prepared sitting for you in the fridge.
Tried any new recipes lately? Let us know what they are!