Health is a multifaceted term that encompasses physical, emotional and mental well-being, as well as supportive and appropriate relationships. Many Gen X women focus on physical health to measure overall health. But maintaining mental and emotional health is a vital part of living a healthy life. And one of the simplest ways to maintain good mental health is through making healthy dietary choices and changes. Food for mental health falls into two categories: providing essential nutrients and avoiding problematic foods and chemicals. Food choices can have a strong impact on mental health. And common knowledge about healthy vs. unhealthy foods often isn’t enough to make a significant and lasting impact on an individual basis. Most people know that nutrient dense whole foods that are high in vitamins, minerals and fiber have a positive impact on the body. Some people know the impact it has on the brain. Fewer know the specific foods they should incorporate into and eliminate from their diets to optimize their bodies.
Good Food, Bad Food
Healthy food provides nutrient rich fuel that maximizes calorie needs and minimizes calorie waste. But overeating good foods can still cause problems. Consuming too many calories or the wrong ratio of macro nutrients (fat, carbs, protein) can cause weight gain. Consuming inappropriate amounts of certain vitamins and minerals can cause other health issues, or prevent absorption of other necessary nutrients.
Processed foods are often nutrient poor and calorie dense; typically made with excess salt and chemical additives like preservatives. They can also contain hormones and antibiotics that interfere with our biological machinery.
Organic foods are much preferred but specific medical conditions can make certain healthy foods unhealthy for your body. Or certain foods can act counter to your specific health and fitness goals.
Antioxidants and Inflammation
Generally speaking, the best place to start a healthy diet is with foods that reduce inflammation. These are typically foods, plus herbs and spices, that are high in antioxidants and tend to be lower in calories. Antioxidants protect our bodies from cell and DNA damaging particles called free radicals. These free radicals are produced naturally in the course of oxidation – or feeding the body oxygen to help create energy.
Antioxidants are measured on the ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) scale by weight and are typically plant-based. So a vegan diet is a good place to start, then you can add more varieties of foods as needed. Plants are typically deficient in vitamin B12, calcium, iron and zinc. So there is room for some animal products or supplements in a healthy diet, although some argue a plant based diet is the best way to go. You just have to choose what’s best for you and your body.
Brain and Belly
There is also a strong link between the GI (gastrointestinal tract) and the brain. So the best food choices for GI health also tend to improve mental health. But there are a few caveats. Some healthy and high antioxidant foods can worsen symptoms in those with GI problems. The foods to avoid are specific to the condition.
For example, foods high in acid like tomatoes and oranges should be avoided by people with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). People with IBS (irritable bowl syndrome) may need to cut broccoli and other foods that cause gas from their diets. And those with celiac disease will need to eliminate gluten and wheat products all together. Visit a gastroenterologist if you experience pain, gas, bloating, acid reflux, diarrhea, constipation, sluggishness, fatigue or mental fogginess after eating.
Allergies, Intolerances, Sensitivities
Foods and additives can also trigger allergies, intolerances or sensitivities, undermining the positive impact of a healthy diet. Some general practitioners provide allergy testing, but an allergist is trained for these kinds of specialized tests. Skin tests look for histamine (red, itchy, swollen) reactions on the skin of the top food and environmental allergens. Blood tests can also confirm this. But blood tests will sometimes confirm or contradict skin tests. This is why it is important to do both and repeat these tests every few years. Allergies can develop over time.
Interolances can cause immediate or delayed symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, gas, indigestion, etc. when eaten. These tests look for enzymes that break down certain food molecules. For example, lactose intolerant people lack the enzyme lactase and must take it in a supplement like Lactaid to consume dairy milk. Intolerances and allergies can overlap and parsing them can sometimes be difficult. Someone can both be allergic to whey (a dairy protein) and intolerant to lactose (a dairy sugar). Eliminating dairy all together will help both issues. Someone that is only lactose intolerant can still enjoy lactose-free milk.
Sensitivities are the hardest to recognize. There are fewer tests for these, and you may not screen positive for any tests you take. But if you know you experience physical or mental disruptions when a certain food or chemical is in your diet and don’t when it’s not, you likely have a sensitivity. Even if it’s supposed to be healthy this means this particular food is not good for you.
Probiotics and the Microbiome
Adding antioxidants to and eliminating irritants from your system is meant to address inflammation – both in the body and the brain. Reducing inflammation can greatly help alleviate physical discomfort and mental health symptoms by helping your body run efficiently. And part of a functioning system is your microbiome.
Trillions of good bacteria live in and on your body. In fact, we could not survive without them. They make up the majority of our immune system and allow us to break down and absorb nutrients in the food we eat. Part of improving GI and mental health involves incorporating probiotics and prebiotics (food for probiotics) into your lifestyle. You can kickstart your mental health journey by adding a large variety of probiotic strains to your diet.
Food for mental health wellness is largely vegan, unprocessed, organic and tailored to your GI needs. Supplementing with probiotics, vitamins and minerals will help boost these positive mental health affects. Paying attention to your mind and body in relation to your diet will help keep you in tune with any changes you may need to make. Listen to your body and do what is right for you.