Foods for Mental Wellness

November 2022 - Health & Wellness

With stress at an all-time high over the last few years, it’s really easy to put food on the back burner. Plus, if you have strong feelings of depression or anxiety, making a healthy meal can feel almost impossible, even if it can make a world of difference.

So, let’s start small and easy. Is there something you can make that’s fast, easy and nutritionally dense? Focusing on adding and looking at only one meal or snack at a time is key. Let’s not add more stress to your life by judging a few food choices; each nutrient-dense addition is a win!
The good news is that many foods can help support your mental wellness. Let’s first look at a few food triggers and how to find balance. Then, we’ll dive into some mental wellness superfoods, all while making this as easy and doable as possible.

Mental Health and Blood Sugar
A common result of an imbalanced diet—a blood sugar crash—can dramatically affect your mental health. Suddenly patience goes out the window and you’re quick to anger. Or, your body may react differently and instead of getting fiery, you might get tired and depressed. Many don’t actually feel hungry. Your only symptom of this blood sugar crash is a mood change.

Refined flour and sugar can also lead to nutritional deficiencies that can promote more depressive feelings. And the rush of a sugar high can trigger anxiety in many people.

Replacing refined flour and sugar with unrefined sugar (honey, maple syrup, fruit) can make a world of difference. Adding fibre, protein and healthy fat to your meals also slows the glucose entering your bloodstream and keeps your blood sugar much more balanced.

Sugar and Salt Cravings
I’ve seen a pattern over and over again, including in my own life. When under stress, we usually have a tendency to feel either depressed or anxious (with some who teeter between the two). It’s believed that this wiring happens in utero, so you’re literally born this way. And I’ve noticed that those wired for depression tend to have a lot of sugar cravings and those wired for anxiety tend to gravitate to salty food.
These cravings can change, especially when faced with big-time stress or chronic stress, but they’re fairly universal. Plus, they make sense physically.

Sugar and Depression
When our mood is low then our serotonin is low too. The current understanding of depression is that it’s connected to low serotonin (some experts are questioning this idea). Eating something sweet gives us a temporary boost of that feel-good neurotransmitter. So it’s not surprising that we get strong sugar cravings!

First the bad news: eating something super sugary feels good for a moment, but the rebound effect is lower mood and lower serotonin. The good news is that you can get a serotonin boost from whole sweet foods, like fruit, without the rebound effect.

I believe that people who are wired for depression need healthy carbs in their diet. Yes, I believe it’s a need. I’ve observed that a low carb diet can trigger low mood for some.

Salt and Anxiety
Being wired for anxiety can make it hard to feel relaxed and you may have been born with neurotransmitters that were set a bit too high. This may lead to low adrenal function and frequently, low blood pressure. I’ve met many people with chronic anxiety who also tend toward low blood pressure, and that’s where your salt cravings come in.

Salt (especially sea salt) is a healing food for chronic anxiety and low blood pressure. You’re literally craving exactly what you need! Enjoy sea salt to your taste and add a pinch to your water any time you’re feeling extra dehydrated or if your blood pressure feels low (feeling light-headed).

In my experience, people who are wired for anxiety do well on a higher protein diet. It’s not as cut and dry as it is for depression, but protein has been found to calm neurotransmitters and I’ve seen that effect in many clients. It’s something to try.

Add in the goodness.
Just a few simple additions can add nutrient-dense, blood sugar balancing food to your diet and help to support your mental wellness. Focus on the power of adding so you don’t add “make a perfect dinner” to your long list of stressors. Each added whole food is a huge win! Go nutrient density!

Superfoods for Mental Wellness

A healthy diet is all that’s needed to support your mental health. But, these extra special bonus foods give a little more help.

  • Wild Oily Fish (salmon) Really high in omega 3s. Cook under 350°F to retain those precious oils.
  • Berries Antioxidants help to lower inflammation and repair cells damaged by oxidative stress. Polyphenols help with concentration and attention span.
  • Fermented Foods (yogurt, sauerkraut) Feeds your gut bacteria, which supports your neurotransmitter production.
  • Whole Grains (quinoa, oats, wheat) A source of tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin.
  • Dark Leafy Greens (spinach, kale, chard) Studies show a daily serving can reduce your risk of cognitive decline as you age.
  • Beans Full of fibre to keep your blood sugar steady, antioxidants for cellular repair and B vitamins which help make acetylcholine for memory. 

Lisa Kilgour, rhn is one of Nature’s Fare Markets’ nutritionists and sought-after speaker and educator who helps people heal from diverse and complex health issues. She has spoken at TEDxKelowna and is the author of Undieting: Freedom from the Bewildering World of Fad Diets.
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