6 Ways Food Can Help Your Mental Health - Genesis Health System

Published on July 17, 2015

6 Ways Food Can Help Your Mental Health

Six ways food can better your mental health by Genesis Dietitian Teresa Pangan


Depression affects approximately 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older 

Source: Anxiety & Depression Association of America

How do you know if you have more than just feeling the blues? WebMD defines depression as the following:

  • Feelings of a constant sense of sadness, worthlessness, or hopelessness coupled with a loss of interest in your usual activities.
  • Poor concentration, significant increase or decrease in appetite, low energy and constantly feeling tired are symptoms of depression.

Diet alone cannot cure depression. Eating is but one factor. It's certainly not the only lifestyle factor that contributes towards your mood. Sleep, exercise, smiling (even forcing yourself helps) and surrounding yourself with positive and supportive relationships can also perk up your mood.

But here are 6 ways to get your mind in tip top shape with diet:

1. Eat at regular intervals

Eat at Regular Intervals

While our brains weigh only 2 percent of our total body weight, they use 20 percent of our energy needs. Eating every 3 to 5 hours a meal or snack helps to refuel the brain.

2. Fill up on the Good Brain Fats

Flaxseed is a great source of Omega-3

More and more studies are supporting the idea that omega-3 fatty acids extend beyond heart-health and may actually improve mood disorders like major depression, postpartum depression, bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder and schizophrenia.

What is really key is your ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats you want is around 1:1. The problem is that the Western diet of omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is closer to 15:1. Not good. Decreasing the amount of omega-6 fats in the diet while increasing omega-3 fats helps balance that ratio and may relieve symptoms of depression.

Not surprisingly, today most people are eating way too many omega-6 fatty acids. At the same time, consumption of omega-3s is the lowest it has ever been. Again, not good.

I don’t want to mislead you. Omega-6 fatty acids are not bad types of fats; instead, the amount in our diets has increased so much that our diets are out of whack. We actually need some omega-6 fatty acids in our diet because our bodies can't make them and they are needed for brain and nerve function.

Unfortunately, most of the omega-6 fatty acids in our diet today come from processed foods in the form of linoleic acid. This comes from vegetable oils such as corn oil, soybean oil, and sunflower oil. Salad dressings, snack crackers, chips, fast food frying oil, and baked goods are the top sources of omega-6s in our diets today.

Ratio Explained

The ratio concept is key because there is a lot of misinformation that comes out on omega-3s. The omega-3s that you want to raise to get a better ratio are DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid).

DHA and EPA are long-chain fatty acids. They both work in different ways to help reduce depressive symptoms. We are still trying to understand what happens, but you need both DHA and EPA.

There is another omega-3 called Alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. It is important to know this is NOT the same as the other two omega-3s. Sources of this type of omega-3 are walnuts, flaxseed and chia. These are short-chain omega-3 fatty acids and perform much differently in the body. These short-chain omega-3s help for heart health, but not for mood health.

While some ALA will be converted into EPA and DHA, it is very small as human conversion is very poor. In women the conversion is around 8 percent and men only 4 percent. This is why I do not recommend sources of ALA as part of getting your omega-3s for mental health.

Competition Clouds the Issue

One more key factor is that once in your body, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids compete for the same conversion enzymes. So if you are eating a diet high in omega-6s, the high intake of omega 6s will block some of the omega-3 absorption into your body.

What this means in straight talk is that the more omega-6s you consume, the less omega-3s that are available to your body’s tissues. Whoa! So not only do you want to increase the omega-3s DHA and EPA, you want to decrease how much omega-6 you eat.

To help you understand, if two people eat a diet with the same amounts of omega-3s, but one person’s diet is high in omega-6s (they eat a lot of processed foods), and the other person’s is low in omega-6s, the person with the low omega-6s in their diet will store MORE omega-3s in their tissue. That is what you want to happen.

Most people eating a Western diet are storing immense amounts of omega-6s in their body fat stores and it can take years to get rid of them. This is important because the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in our tissue isn’t just crucial towards your general health, both also mental and heart health.

My goal is not to confuse you, but to show you all the parts that interplay for good mental health eating.

3. Eat the right balance of foods

Eating a balanced diet is key

Follow these principles when eating for your mental health:

  • Avoid vegetable oils high in omega-6 (and the processed foods that contain them) like snack foods, cookies, crackers, sweets, frozen processed foods and fast food.
  • Eat plenty of omega-3 DHA and EPA cold water sources (salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna, black cod and herring are best sources) at least two or three times a week. If you are not a fish eater then eat omega-3 rich eggs and consider an omega-3 fish oil supplement.
  • Switch from soybean oil to high oleic safflower oil and olive oil since they are monounsaturated fats and will not compete for the conversion enzyme with EPA and DHA.

4. If you don't like fish, try a supplement

Fish Oil Supplment

If you do not eat fish or have a mood disorder, consider taking a fish oil supplement. However, consult with your doctor first. Here are some tips on finding a good supplement:

  • Pass on supplements that have omega-6 or omega-9 fatty acids. You don't need them. Buy only brands of fish oil that are "molecularly distilled" or otherwise guaranteed to be free of toxic contaminants.
  • Also, choose a supplement brand that has been independently tested and guaranteed to be free of heavy metals such as mercury and lead, and other environmental toxins including polychlorinated biphenyls, also known as PCBs. It helps to look for supplements that receive a five-star rating from International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS). The Canadian organization assesses the purity of commercial fish oil supplements.
  • Eating three servings of fish a week means you get about 750 mg per day of omega-3s EPA and DHA. Research indicates those with mood disorders may benefit from 1,000 mg of EPA plus DHA.
  • Look for a supplement with 700 to 1,000 mg of EPA and 200 to 500 mg of DHA daily in the smallest number of pills. If you use liquid fish oil, find one that provides these amounts in the fewest teaspoons. Take pills on a full stomach.
  • If you get fish-flavored burps (EW!), try keeping the product in the freezer and swallowing frozen capsules. Take with your largest meal and look for enteric-coated capsules, too.

Using Supplements Safely

Since omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, they have blood-thinning effects. If you are currently on anticoagulation therapy such as warfarin, Coumadin, aspirin, and other anti-inflammatory supplements, discuss omega 3 fatty acid supplements with your doctor before starting to take it.

If you are currently on medication to treat a diagnosed mood disorder and want to see if omega 3 fatty acids can help you, do NOT stop taking your prescribed medication.

5. Choose more wholefoods

Whole grains are the way to go!

Wholegrain cereals, peas, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables are rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function well.

Additionally, these foods are digested slowly, resulting in a slow release of glucose to your brain and body. This means a constant flow of fuel to your brain and no need for alternate sources of energy.

Folate, which is in good supply in these unprocessed plant sources, raises levels of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that contributes to the feeling of well-being and happiness. Studies have found a link between decreased levels of folate in the body and depression.

6. Incorporate protein into every meal

A variety of foods high in protein

Tryptophan is one of the building blocks of protein and it has been shown to play a role in depression. You can’t buy tryptophan supplements, but you can make sure that your diet contains it by ensuring you eat enough protein.

Protein also contains essential nutrients, and eating it often helps to keep us feeling full, which in turn can prevent overeating. You don't need a lot for these benefits to take place. Just one or two ounces of a good source of quality protein at a snack or meal will do the job.

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