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Good-mood foods: What to eat for mental health

If you’re struggling with stress, anxiety or grief during the COVID-19 pandemic, eating the right foods can help support your mental well-being as well as your physical health and immune system.

What you eat can have a significant effect on your mood, says Corey Tolbert, RD, LD, a licensed and registered dietitian at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont.

“Nutrition affects everything,” says Tolbert. “If you don’t eat well and give your body the fuel it needs, you won’t feel well, and that can bring on negative mental and physical changes. It’s all a cycle. If you start to gain weight, your clothes may feel tighter and you may feel sluggish and not as good about yourself.”

Blood sugar and your mood

Blood sugar stability is essential to feeling good mentally and physically.

“When your blood sugar spikes and then drops, that has a lot to do with how you feel,” she says. “If you eat a donut, you’ll get a sugar high for 30 minutes to an hour, but then your blood sugar will plummet and you’ll feel fatigued and sluggish.”

This drop in blood sugar can also lead to that familiar “hangry” feeling.

The best foods for mental health

Tolbert says the following foods support mental well-being because they fight inflammation and provide your body with the vitamins, minerals and nutrients it needs:

Probiotics. If you don’t have a healthy gut, it can affect your mental health. Your gut is like your “second brain,” she says, because it produces much of the body’s serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of happiness and well-being.

For better gut health, eat probiotic-rich foods or take a supplement, she recommends. Foods rich in probiotics include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tofu, tempeh, kombucha and anything fermented. If you don’t consume fermented foods regularly, consider a probiotics supplement, Tolbert says.

“Look for a supplement that must be refrigerated and contains multiple strains of bacteria,” she says.

Anti-inflammatory foods. Foods that help decrease systemic inflammation in the body – such as turmeric, ginger, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, tomatoes, berries, green leafy vegetables and olive oil – can help you feel better physically and mentally.

Plant-based whole foods. You can’t go wrong with clean, unprocessed or minimally processed foods, she says. This means fresh or frozen produce, whole grains, nuts, seeds and plant oils. “Fruits and vegetables have phytonutrients that build up your immune system,” says Tolbert.

Foods that have a negative impact on mental health

For a better mood, Tolbert says to consume the following foods only in moderation because they can spike your blood sugar and trigger inflammation in the body:

Processed foods. This includes any food not in its original state, such as chips, crackers, baked goods, French fries, white bread, white pasta, pizza, bottled salad dressings and frozen meals. Check the item’s ingredient list – the shorter the list, the better.

Sugary foods and drinks. Sugary items like candy, ice cream, sweetened cereal, baked goods, soft drinks, juices, granola bars, sauces and cocktail mixers can spike your blood sugar and leave you feeling low-energy.

Saturated and trans fats. While some types of fats are healthy (think avocadoes, olive oil, nuts and seeds), saturated and trans fats offer little to no health benefits. Trans fats are found in many fried or heavily processed foods and should be avoided altogether. Check nutrition labels for partially hydrogenated oils, which is code for trans fats.

Saturated fats – found in red meat, processed meat, dark-meat chicken, chicken skin, dairy products and coconut oil – should be eaten in moderation.

Don’t skimp on sleep or exercise

Tolbert also notes that exercising regularly and getting enough sleep is just as important as proper nutrition.

“So many studies prove that when you exercise, you release endorphins and serotonin, which can help with symptoms of depression,” she says. “You want to keep your immune system strong. If you don’t get the nutrition, exercise or sleep your body needs, you’ll be more susceptible to getting sick.”

Please note: While nutrition, exercise and sleep are essential for your health, sometimes you may need professional support to address mental health concerns. Contact your primary care provider or counselor for a telehealth visit if you have concerns about your mental or physical well-being.

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