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Why Eating the Right Foods Is Critical for Mental Health

Why Eating the Right Foods Is Critical for Mental Health

Eating a nutritious, balanced diet is a vital but often-overlooked part of the mental health equation 

Poor mental health has major economic implications, costing the U.S. economy $193.2 billion and the global economy $1 trillion when considering factors such as lost productivity, absenteeism, and turnover.

Lifesum’s 2024 State of Healthy Eating and Wellbeing Report identified mental health as a significant challenge to Gen Z and Millennials; 81% said they would quit their jobs tomorrow due to stress, and 69% would be more productive if their employer improved their wellbeing.

Gen Z and Millennials are prioritizing personal wellbeing and mental health, and organizations including Amazon, Wellhub (formerly Gympass), PayPal, and GE are beginning to understand how a nutrition-first approach can benefit mental, physical and emotional health, which, in turn, enhances workplace satisfaction and productivity.

Many people don’t realize it, but a nutritious, balanced diet positively impacts mental health, as it provides the body with essential nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and amino acids necessary for proper brain function. When the body lacks these nutrients, it can affect neurotransmitter function and mood regulation, potentially increasing stress and decreasing resilience to stressors.

For individuals already experiencing mental health issues, adopting a healthy diet can complement other therapeutic interventions, including psychotherapy, and help to improve overall well-being.

Addressing dietary factors can have long-term implications for reducing the risk of chronic diseases associated with stress and poor nutrition.

Signe Svanfeldt, Lead Nutritionist, Lifesum

Food, the Gut & the Mind

The link is complex, involving various physiological, psychological, and social factors. Let us explore three examples: the gut-brain axis, inflammation and oxidative stress, and sleep:

The gut-brain axis refers to the bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain. The gut microbiota (the trillions of microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract), plays a vital role in this communication, and diet significantly impacts the diversity of gut microbiota, which, in turn, can impact cognition, mood and behavior.

Inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain has been linked to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. Various foods, particularly those high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, can help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which, as a result, can promote mental well-being.

Sleep is closely linked to mental health. What, and when you eat can impact your sleep – eating large amounts of food close to bedtime can interfere with your sleeping habits. Certain foods and nutrients, such as those containing tryptophan and magnesium, can promote relaxation and improve sleep quality, while excessive caffeine or sugar intake is likely to negatively affect sleep patterns.

Tips To Improve Your Diet

The good news is that there are some immediate diet changes that you can make to help improve your mental well-being.

For starters, make sure that you eat more pre- and probiotics, as both are important for our gut health. Probiotics are found in fiber-rich vegetables like broccoli and carrots, and whole grains like oats and barley. These probiotic foods are “feeding” the good bacteria in our gut, but they can also help reduce inflammation in the body and make neurotransmitters like serotonin, a “happy hormone” that regulates mood and reduces symptoms of stress and anxiety, more available. 

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Our guts love probiotics, so consuming more probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut (and other types of fermented cabbage) as well as fermented dairy products, including kefir and yogurt, help to increase the amount of healthy bacteria and activity of the gut microbiome, which can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and enhance stress resilience.

Increasing omega-3 intake is another good example. These include fatty fish (mackerel, salmon), seeds (such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and hemp seeds) and nuts like walnuts, which can help to reduce inflammation in the brain linked to mood disorders like depression and anxiety, thereby improving mental well-being.

Consuming more polyphenols, found in foods such as fruit, including apples, grapes, and kiwi, and vegetables, such as peppers, red cabbage, and spinach, also help as they promote healthy blood flow to the brain and can protect it from oxidative stress and inflammation, which may affect mental health by reducing depressive symptoms and increasing overall mental well-being.

Increasing your complex carbs, for example, with whole grains such as oats, barley, and buckwheat, and root vegetables like sweet potatoes, beet root, carrots, and parsnips, supports gut health and aids digestion, providing our bodies with essential nutrients, which can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

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The Need for Workplace Wellness

The workplace culture presents a pivotal opportunity for enhancing mental health through improved dietary practices.

Encouraging a workplace culture that prioritizes nutrition can help to improve your team’s mental well-being. And the good news is that there are various easy-to-implement strategies to help start this process today.

For example, offering nutritional education and organizing workshops on nutrition and healthy eating habits with practical tips and resources, including nutrition apps such as Lifesum, will help employees incorporate healthy eating into their daily routines.

Providing healthy snack options by stocking the workplace with nutritious snacks like fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, or whole-grain crackers instead of high-sugar vending machine options, will support healthier choices and boost mental well-being.

Encouraging regular meal breaks and advocating for regular breaks for meals and snacks with designated break areas where employees can enjoy meals away from workstations can promote mindful eating and reduce stress.

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Promoting hydration by ensuring easy access to water with water coolers or hydration stations can help employees stay hydrated throughout the day, which supports cognitive function and mood, benefiting mental health.

The relationship between stress and diet is multifaceted, with diet influencing stress levels and stress impacting dietary choices. The relationship between food and mental well-being underscores the importance of adopting a balanced diet that nourishes both the body and the mind.

Incorporating a balanced diet as part of mental health care can be instrumental in promoting well-being and resilience to stressors both in and out of the workplace. Making informed dietary choices, and creating a mindset that prioritizes nutrient-dense foods, can support optimal brain function, emotional resilience, and overall mental health.

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