De-Stressing With Diet

Angela Charlton R.D.-N.'s picture
By Angela Charlton... on April 7, 2020

To anyone who has ever experienced the tired, irritable feelings that can come with hunger, the fact that food can have a big impact on our mood will come as no surprise. 

And, there is evidence that what we eat could also play a role in our broader mental health.

Recent studies suggest that a healthy diet can both reduce the risk and alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

That’s good news, since we could all use another tool in our toolkit for supporting our mental well-being right now. Food is an often overlooked yet powerful tool! 

What Is a Mood-Friendly Diet?

To help promote a stable mood, stick to eating habits that nourish the gut microbiome, decrease anxiety-inducing cravings and minimize blood sugar swings.

Foods rich in anti-inflammatory fats, complex carbohydrates, fiber, phytonutrients, protein and key vitamins and minerals can support brain structure and function.

8 Good Mood Food Habits

1.  Replace Junk Foods With Whole Foods
Processed foods—along with the excess weight they can lead to in larger quantities—have been linked to chronic stress and inflammation. Both can negatively affect our physical and mental health.

Whenever you can, opt for minimally processed foods with as few additives as possible.

Be smart when you snack. For example, choose unsalted nuts instead of chips when you crave something crunchy, or get your sweet fix by switching to fruit instead of candy. 

And, get as much physical activity as you safely can while social distancing!

2. Add Some Color  
Aim to eat as many different colors of fruits and veggies as you can each day. Five daily servings is the goal!

Since daily servings of fresh fruit may be less realistic right now, don’t overlook frozen or dried alternatives. But do avoid dried fruit with lots of added sugar, and remember that a serving size of dried fruit is smaller (about half the size of a portion of fresh fruit).

All kinds of fruits and vegetables are a good source of fiber to promote gut health and stable blood sugar, plus antioxidants and phytonutrients to support brain structure and function. Eating a wide variety of colors helps you cover all your bases.  

3. Stay Calm and Carry On with Carbs
Complex carbs, that is. Complex carbohydrates—like oatmeal, quinoa, and popcorn, all of which make fantastic pantry staples—provide steady, stable fuel for our brains and our bodies. That keeps our energy levels and our moods stable, too!

Whole grains also provide B vitamins and minerals associated with brain health. And, they’re a great source of fiber, which feeds the “good” bacteria in the gut.

That’s important because much of the body’s serotonin and dopamine—two important chemicals that contribute to the sense of happiness and well-being—are produced in the gut. Small wonder that they call the gut the “second brain!”

For the best mood-boosting results, try to eat at three servings of whole grains each day.

Canned salmon in a dish.
Canned salmon is a pantry-friendly source of anti-inflammatory fats, which have been linked to reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.

4. Get the Proper Proteins
Protein helps you feel full for longer, beating back the cravings and blood sugar crashes that can cause fatigue and irritability.

Protein sources like turkey, skim milk and low-fat yogurt also provide tryptophan.

Tryptophan is an amino acid and an important building block of two neurotransmitters that are key to your mood: the “feel good” brain chemical serotonin and the sleep-regulating brain chemical melatonin.  

More positive feelings and better sleep sounds like something we all could use!

5. Focus on Mood-Friendly Fats
The “good fats”—anti-inflammatory fats like omega-3 fatty acids—have been linked to decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression.

We may tend to think of somewhat more expensive foods as great sources of healthy fats.

But while we’re all trying to eat from the pantry, canned salmon and canned tuna can get the job done!

6. Hydrate the Right Way
We’re not about to suggest you give up your morning coffee during an already stressful time.

But, do keep in mind that “excessive” amounts of caffeine can increase your body’s level of the stress hormone cortisol, and in some people can cause anxiety or jitters. (For most of us, “excessive” means more than two cups of coffee per day.)

Try switching to green tea if you find that coffee puts you on edge.

Keep an eye on your water intake, too. Even “mild” dehydration can cause fatigue and a lower mood!

If you have a weakness for sugary beverages, now is the time to replace them—whether with plain water, infused water or seltzer.

Extra sugar (and the potential weight gain it can cause) is pro-inflammatory—and pro-inflammatory can be pro-anxiety and depression.      

7. Be on Time  
Timing is everything for stabilizing your blood sugar, and with it, your mood.

Try to eat lighter meals and snacks every few hours, and avoid skipping meals. You’ll lessen the cravings and anxiety that can come with inconsistent eating habits.

Maintaining a sense of structure by eating your meals at the same time each day is also helpful while our work, school and social schedules may be far from normal. 

Woman washing her hands in kitchen sink.
Brewing tea, giving thanks and even washing your hands before you cook can all become mindfulness practices.

8. Bring Mindfulness to Your Meals  
Mindfulness—a complete focus on the present moment—is a powerful aspect of mental well-being, especially for managing anxiety.

You can bring some much-needed mindfulness to the table by incorporating simple yet meaningful rituals around eating and drinking—and repeating them each time.

For example, giving thanks before dinner, brewing yourself a hot cup of tea before breakfast, or any family or cultural traditions you associate with food can all make meals meaningful.

The key is to focus completely on what you’re doing. For example, while you’re brewing your morning tea, no checking emails or watching the news—instead, really hear the sound of the water boiling, or really savor the aroma of the tea leaves steeping.

Even washing your hands before you eat or prepare food can become a practice in mindfulness. Pay attention to the sensation of warm water on your skin or to the scent of the soap. Apply some hand lotion afterward for a touch of self-care. 

We may as well make all the handwashing we’re diligently doing right now a moment to support our mental health!
Angela Charlton, R.D.-N., leads our Community Health and Outreach nutrition team and is a regular contributor to Carilion Living.

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