Here’s food for thought in the literal sense: The food you eat directly affects your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, energy level, and overall wellbeing. The mind and body are intricately connected (beyond mere connection — they’re one fluid system), and nourishing both keeps your feeling physically and mentally healthy. A crucial component of our overall health and wellbeing that many of us often overlook (I’ve been guilty) is nutrition. Food for healthy thoughts: You need good food for great functioning and quality of life.
What Does Food Do For Us?
The brain is powered by the food we eat. Protein, for example, is digested into amino acids which are used by the brain and gut to make the neurotransmitters behind our mental health. What we eat can provide energy or deplete it. It can make us feel positive and content or emotionally upset and stressed. Because nutrients (or lack of them) power the brain, what we eat affects the way we think. It really is incredible how deeply we are what we eat; indeed, nutritional psychiatry, or as Harvard instructor Dr. Uma Naidoo calls it, Psycho-Nutrition. It’s important to note, though, that proper diet helps support and maintain mental health and wellbeing over time but is not a quick-fix cure for physical or mental illnesses.
Our energy comes from our diet. While caffeine can provide a surge of energy for many people, a steadier source of energy comes from protein and complex carbohydrates. Whole grains are digested more slowly than processed ones, and they are digested into glucose (sugar). A steady supply of glucose keeps us feeling evenly energized rather than experiencing energy spikes and drops throughout the day, fluctuations that leave us feeling physically and mentally unwell.
The right foods keep us alert and focused. Nutrition keeps us feeling emotionally even and shapes the nature of our thoughts (if the brain isn’t functioning properly, our emotions and thoughts will be impacted). Eating well increases our motivation to do things and provides the energy we need to do them.
Other functions of nutritious eating include:
- a decrease in stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol
- reduced blood pressure
- increased immune system functioning
- increases blood flow to the brain
Foods For Wellbeing: What Should We Eat?
So what should we eat? Happily, you don’t have to adopt a freaky diet or force yourself to choke down something you hate. If eating is miserable, it’s not good for your health no matter how many nutrients are packed into it. Think in terms of important categories, and then select what you like and find convenient within each one. Your brain and body need these general foods to thrive:
- Complex carbohydrates (whole grains)
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Nuts and seeds
It’s Not Just the Food Itself
What you eat is important. However, that’s not the only thing that contributes to wellbeing when it comes to food. To enhance your physical and mental health, be intentional about what you eat, how you eat, and when you eat.
How you eat is important. Do you gulp something down on the run? Do you sit in front of a screen and eat without being aware of what you’re doing? Or do you take time, even a few short minutes, to take a break from what you’re doing to enjoy a mindful bite?
I used to think I didn’t have time to eat small amounts throughout the day, and if I did give that a try, I’d do so at my desk. I didn’t think I had time to take a break to eat. But then I tried it. It’s nice. It’s refreshing and resets my mind, and it allows me to destress by taking a few moments for mindful eating. Further, I supply myself with nutrients and energy to stay focused and productive. It truly does take just a few minutes, and it improves my day, my ability to work, and my general wellbeing.
When you eat is important as well. Eating small amounts several times a day (often referred to as grazing) is better for you than eating three big meals with nothing in between. With more regular intake, you keep your blood sugar level rather than causing it to rise after a meal and then crash, something that causes an emotional roller coaster and a sense of stress and anxiety.
Food for thought: Think in terms of what, how, and when you eat to nourish your brain and body. You’ll think better, feel better, and do better. That is wellbeing.
Learn about mindful eating in The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety.
Depression and diet. (n.d.). WebMD. Retrieved April, 2018. from
Naidoo, U. (2016). Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical
School. Retrieved May, 2018. from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-strategies-to-ease-anxiety-201604139441
Sathyanarayana Rao, T.S., Asha, M.R., Ramesh, B.N., & Jagannatha Rao, K.S. (2008). Understanding
nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal or Psychiatry, 50(2), 77-82. Retrieved April, 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/
Unger, K.V. & Cavender, L.H. (2015). Brain health for life: Beyond pills, politics, and popular diets.
Portland, OR: Inkwater Press.