There are many factors that go into maintaining mental wellbeing. Overall wellness and emotional satisfaction are influenced by the factors we surround ourselves with. One of the most controllable factors is the food we choose to put into our bodies.
Food has a major influence on how we feel. When we eat, how we eat and what we eat all influence our emotions. Ruchelle Jackson, a functional medicine nutritionist and holistic health practitioner, said the standard American diet may not be the best for improving our wellbeing.
“Eating healthy contributes to how you feel every day and your food affects your mood,” Jackson said. “When you eat healthily, you feel lighter, you have more energy, you're going to get more vitamins, minerals and nutrients that feed your body on a cellular level."
When the body is fed on a cellular level, it positively impacts emotional wellbeing allowing for less intense emotional changes.
“Your demeanor is just different, you're more sound, more in tune with your environment and calmer, you don’t have to deal with all of the emotional ups and downs as someone who is out of control on a standard American diet,” Jackson said.
Comfort foods may also play a role in poor mental health. Comfort foods are often thought of as a mood booster, creating a safe feeling when eaten. Unfortunately, these types of foods may be contributing to high stress levels and declining mental health.
“As we get older, those same foods that we have grown up enjoying begin to have a different effect. You add this comforting food that’s not as healthy as it could be, and it creates stress,” Jackson said. “Some of us ignore those signals and that’s when we start to take medicine to make us feel better."
In a lot of circumstances, the stomach can be thought of as the second brain. Serotonin, often referred to as the 'feel-good chemical' is affected by the stomach and what is being put into it.
“Our stomach is our second brain... the stomach and the brain communicate together all the time. If your stomach is not feeling well, you feel tired, emotional; you're not able to think clearly," Jackson said. "What you feed yourself goes through many different channels and it is going to affect you mentally because the stomach and the brain have such a very close connection. If the food you eat increases serotonin, you're going to feel great, but if the food you eat decreases it... then you're not going to feel so great."
Food starts in the stomach and travels throughout the entire body. Susan Katz-Scheinker, registered dietician of Cambium Nutrition, said “food has a lot of different pathways in our body.” For example, the brain requires glucose to function. If someone isn't eating enough carbohydrates this can affect brain function.
“Let’s pretend that someone isn't eating well... their brain would have less carbohydrate to focus on and they would have less cognitive ability over time," Katz-Scheinker said. "There are cases where people don’t process emotions the same when they're not eating well."
A lack of nutrients may shut down natural functions of the body. Necessary functions, like women’s menstrual cycles, could be impacted if the individual isn’t getting the proper fuel for their body to work correctly.
“If a female wasn’t getting enough nutrition, over time her body would stop producing a menstrual cycle," Katz-Scheinker said. “The immediate (need) is to have the brain, heartbeat, liver function first and the cycle becomes very secondary.”
It may seem discouraging that the way most Americans eat isn't necessarily beneficial for mental health. Despite this, there are several simple changes one can make to improve their quality of life using food.
“Have the meals in your life, don’t skip meals. Have some sort of carbohydrate which could be starch, fruit or even some yogurt or milk and then partner those proteins with a fat or lipid source,” Katz-Scheinker said.
It’s also recommended that individuals eat every three to five hours to keep their blood sugar level balanced.
Jackson is a proponent of the term 'fresher is better.' This phrase is used to describe the benefits the body receives from eating mostly raw or very lightly steamed vegetables.
“Stay as fresh as possible and try to look at your diet like a pie graph, how much of it is processed, cooked, and how much raw do you get,” Jackson said.
If it’s difficult to eat uncooked meals, Jackson recommends a raw salad before meals to help digest the cooked food.
For college students, all this information can be difficult to maintain. Katz-Scheinker said that sticking to modest foods such as peanut butter, a loaf of bread, beans, oatmeal and keeping starches closer to the earth so they can be bought in bulk may reduce some financial stresses that eating healthy may cause.