If you think that helping of fries, potato chips or special comfort food will help you as you manage your days, deadlines and stress, think again!

Poor eating habits can actually worsen your mood while compromising your health physically and mentally. The lie most people believe about food is it can’t hurt you. But the truth is, everything you consume is either building you up, healing you or hurting you.

It’s not a matter of opinion or belief. It’s fact. Food that has low nutritional value, typically produced in the form of packaged foods needing little or no preparation (also known as junk food) — along with fried, processed and sugary foods — has ill affects with every bite. Physically, consuming these types of foods increase risks for heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, Type 2 diabetes, excess weight and obesity-related illnesses while also affecting mental health.

Along with how active you are, the relationships you have, and the environments you are exposed to, what you eat is one of the most powerful influences on you physically and mentally. And many people who want “to feel better” just don’t understand there are clear and important connections between your brain and gut.

Recent research helps illuminate the role food plays in influencing your mood. Your mind has special nerve cells, connections and tiny molecules that send signals. In unison, your brain and gut help you think and solve problems while also impacting your feelings, emotions and mood.

Eating well-balanced snacks and meals at regular intervals while avoiding or minimizing certain foods helps you to boost your mental abilities and mood, as well as manage stress while decreasing your chances of developing generalized anxiety disorder and certain mood disorders (e.g., depression, bipolar). It can also be part of an overall treatment plan if you do have them.

Emerging fields of nutritional medicine are confirming the food you eat and what you drink directly affects the structure of your digestive tract, the function of your brain and your mood and emotions. The bottom line is eating good food and drinking water promotes not just your physical but also your mental health.

There are a great variety of healthy foods to incorporate in your diet that will benefit your mental health and help maximize your overall health and wellbeing — even change your health — in a very short amount of time.

Enjoying a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, wholegrain cereals, legumes, low-fat dairy, lean meat and oily fish, for instance, is linked to reductions in mood swings, depression and anxiety. Conversely, the opposite holds true for a diet based on foods high in refined sugar or saturated fats, processed foods or involves high intakes of caffeine or alcohol.

Sugary items

Whether it’s food or drink, sugary items are quickly absorbed through your intestines into your bloodstream, causing blood sugar levels to skyrocket. This stimulates a spike in the hormone insulin which moves sugar from the bloodstream into your cells to be used as fuel. The result is a drop in blood sugar levels which can leave us feeling anxious, jittery, tense and irritable — and not only craving for something sweet to restore the fuel supply of sugar, but also leads to a roller-coaster ride of emotions.

Avoiding or limiting sugary foods and drinks can help stabilize your blood sugar levels throughout the day. To satisfy a sweet craving, reach for a piece of fruit. Although it contains sugar, it also contains fiber that slows down sugar absorption, and you do not see sudden spikes in blood sugar levels. And also watch out for refined carbohydrates found in processed items like white bread, rice and pasta, some cereals, ketchup and salad dressings, as well as sugary drinks like alcohol, soda and fruit juices.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These are essential nutrients, meaning they are a compound the body needs but cannot be made on their own. They are structural components of our brain cells, play a role in nerve signaling and have powerful anti-inflammatory capabilities. It makes good sense, and the science seems to support that omega-3 deficiencies can contribute to anxious states, depression and memory issues. Make sure to incorporate fatty fish (e.g., salmon, mackerel, sardines), soybeans and high-fat plant foods, such as nuts (e.g., walnuts) and chia and flax seeds to ensure adequate intake.

Eat a balanced breakfast

Not eating soon after waking creates hunger and plunging blood sugar levels that are stressful and result in the release of stress hormones that evoke an anxious state. You may find yourself jittery, on edge, unable to focus and agitated. Make sure to consume a balanced breakfast that consists of complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and protein such as eggs, Greek yogurt, fruit or steel-cut oats. And, avoid the trap of carb-filled items such as croissants, muffins and bagels that can cause a blood sugar level roller coaster. Breaking the fast after awakening, provides your body with much needed energy and nutrients.

B Complex Vitamins

Vitamins B6, B12 and folate play important roles in controlling emotions and improving sleep (critical to a calm mind). Vitamin B6 helps make the neurotransmitter serotonin, sometimes called the “happy chemical,” because it contributes to wellbeing and happiness. Studies show that people who suffer from anxiety and depression are folate deficient. Whole grains, red meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, legumes, and dark, leafy veggies are rich sources of B vitamins.

Vitamin C

An antioxidant, this vitamin defends your cells from damage caused by potentially harmful molecules known as free radicals that have the potential to cause neuropsychological issues. Science shows that Vitamin C deficiencies are linked to anxious states, stress, depression and fatigue. Enriching your diet with foods rich in Vitamin C may be useful for the prevention and reduction of anxiety. They include oranges, green peppers, strawberries, broccoli, kiwi, brussels sprouts and kale.

Fermented foods

While not entirely understood, improving the bacteria in our guts is linked to reduced anxiety. Fermented foods contain beneficial bacteria that keep dangerous and disease-causing bacteria at bay. Yes, there are “good” bacteria, believed to decrease inflammation in our bodies. The bacteria enhance the effects of calming molecules in our brain or stabilize the vagus nerve that extends from our brain to our heart, lungs and stomach and keeps our heart rate, breathing, and food digestion constant and controlled. Make sure to include nonfat yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles and pickled foods, miso, and tempeh to improve your gut bacteria.

Tryptophan

An amino acid that must be attained through what we eat, it is a precursor of serotonin synthesis. Because serotonin is involved in the regulation of mood and anxiety, low brain serotonin levels may contribute to an increase in depression and anxiety. Thus, dietary sources of tryptophan such as seeds (chia, sesame, sunflower, flax), nuts (cashew, pistachio, almonds), soy, cheese (parmesan, cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, gouda), meat (roast beef, ground pork, chicken, turkey), fish (salmon, mackerel, cod), and shellfish (lobster, clams, shrimp, oysters, scallops) are essential for good mental health and wellbeing.

Vitamin D

Insufficient levels of this vitamin have been linked to anxiety disorders. Human skin can synthesize large amounts of vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Just 15 minutes of sunlight can get you what you need. Additionally, fortified foods, cheese and egg yolk can help you attain Vitamin D.

Selenium

Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that helps prevent cell damage. And low levels of this essential mineral are linked to anxiety, depression and fatigue. Ensuring you get your daily recommended dose may improve these conditions by reducing inflammation which is often heightened in anxiety. Selenium-rich foods include seafood, shellfish, nuts, seeds, lean means, whole grains, beans and legumes.

Zinc

This mineral is needed to make neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA, and dopamine, that play important roles in your emotions, pleasure, calm and stress response. A number of other nutrient-rich foods previously mentioned are high in zinc — shellfish, legumes, dairy, seeds, nuts, eggs and whole grains.

Magnesium

Inadequate magnesium lowers the level of serotonin in our brains. Almonds, spinach, quinoa, dark chocolate, legumes, avocados, seeds, nuts and edamame are chock-filled with this mineral. Of course, avoid consuming too much salt, caffeine, trans fats, alcohol, nicotine and processed foods.

The bottom line is, what you consume is meant to nourish you by providing vital building blocks, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that fuel your body and mind in order to function optimally. We have the powerful ability to optimize our health — not only physical but also mental health — by consuming a regular, well-balanced diet.

Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions for Dr. Nina to editor@pressofac.com with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line. This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.

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