As school and fall events pick up and schedules become hectic, the stress of a full plate of activities combined with the longer hours of darkness outside may be lowering your mood and raising your anxiety. But did you know that making healthy eating a priority during this fast-paced season can help combat the anxiety and low moods that often accompany fall? Lean proteins, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium are necessary for battling stress and improving your emotional well-being. Each of these nutrients have been found to support the positive chemicals and health of your brain.
Your Mood and Junk Food
Don’t let the busy schedule convince you to slip into stress eating or making the drive-thru a regular practice. Fast food, full of refined sugars, saturated fat, and nearly devoid of fruits and vegetables, does more than just affect your overall health. It also affects your mental health. Junk foods, including heavily processed, fried, and artificial foods, negatively impact the brain and emotions. You might feel better, as the refined, processed foods reach the brain quickly. However, just as quickly, your mood will most likely slip. Refined sugars and processed foods often lead to imbalanced emotions. Those cravings for salty, fatty foods are likely to cause greater anxiety and low spirits.
Research on the effects of your diet is growing, and a diet full of junk food or processed, refined food has multiple connections to poor mental health. Eating unhealthy foods often leads to inflammation and gut health issues, which are both tied to mood and mental health. The Vagus nerve connects the gut and the brain. An imbalance in the gut can send signals to the brain that also overset its healthy patterns. Over time, an unhealthy diet means you will lack key nutrients for proper brain .
Foods that Promote a Good Mood and Emotional Health
On the other hand, several studies show that people, young and old, who eat more fish, fruits, and vegetables are happier, more emotionally stable, and experience less stress and anxiety. Recent research has also demonstrated that antioxidants, such as B vitamins, vitamin C and D, magnesium, and zinc — all found in many plant-based foods — can lead to a happier, calmer state of mind. These nutrients are crucial for proper brain function, and some are linked to positive mood chemicals in the brain.
A 2017 study published in PLoS One Journal, studied the effect that eating more fruits and vegetables had on the moods and emotional health of 171 young adults. In this study, participants who ate more fruits and vegetables felt more motivation, vitality, and a greater sense of flourishing. Other studies have found decreases in anxiety and feelings of depression when adults changed their diets to include more fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. One study simply recommended that participants eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. This straightforward change in diets led to lower stress. In fact, many studies concluded that recommending a diet rich in certain foods more successfully improved mental health than zeroing in on particular vitamins or food components. Overall, omega-3 fatty acids, fibrous carbohydrates, and vitamin rich foods were most helpful.
Stopping the Cycle of Stress, Cravings, and Your Low Mood
You may find yourself overwhelmingly drawn to unhealthy foods when you’re stressed. Your brain and body may seem to be screaming that French fries will make everything better. This is often a sign that your body’s response to stress is out of balance. Stress can cue your body to seek the immediate gratifications found in simple carbohydrates and sugar. This can make it difficult to keep a healthy diet, even if you were in a good routine of healthy eating. Don’t give up! Keep nutritious snacks on hand, like nuts, apples, or your favorite berry. You can satisfy your urge to stress snack, fight off the anxiety through your food choices, and avoid the emotional roller coaster processed foods can bring.
The Mediterranean Diet, a Diet to Lift Your Spirits
If you are ready to make some changes and improve your emotional well-being through food, consider the Mediterranean diet. Almost every study that examined the positive effects of food on frame of mind saw that mood boost by following the Mediterranean diet or one very similar to it. It’s well-balanced, with a distribution of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, and lean meats. The Mediterranean diet focuses on fruits and vegetables, and limits added sugars and processed carbohydrates. Fruits and vegetables are the most consistent link between improved mental health and food. Both the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins Medicine offer easy ways to make the switch to a Mediterranean diet.
Pitfalls to Avoid
If you feel overwhelmed and this seems like too drastic a change to your diet, focus on avoiding the two most common mood-lowering food groups: added sugars and refined, processed grains. These food groups often are the biggest culprits for both short term and long term rises in stress, anxiety, and depression. They often lead to a vicious circle of feeling down, eating unhealthily, and feeling down because of your bad food choices. Sugary drinks, pastries, and refined grains won’t bring you the comfort and stress relief that your cravings promise.
Your Mood and the Fall Season
As the nights lengthen, and the days grow shorter, one other vitamin is crucial for improving your mental health: vitamin D. Sunshine is your best source for vitamin D. Fall and winter are often times when your body runs low on this essential vitamin. Low vitamin D levels mean you will also have low levels of certain chemicals that regulate your emotions. Your low mood and increased anxiety may be partially due to low levels of vitamin D. This fall, be sure to add vitamin D rich foods to your diet, such as milk, eggs, and salmon.
Fatty, fried foods and sugary foods do more than affect your heart and weight. They also affect your mood. So instead of grabbing a bag of chips when you’re stressed and overwhelmed, choose fruits, vegetables, or nuts. These foods are rich in vitamins and nutrients – B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc among others – that give your mood a boost.