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Does Nutrition Affect Mental Health?

holistic health
October 10, 20228 min read

Ahem, clears throat and yells:

The foods you eat matter. What you put into your body matters. Nutrition impacts your mental health - either by supporting it or poisoning it.

As the field of Nutritional Psychiatry grows and incorporates more research, they are finding what we already intuitively know to be true, foods either help or hurt your mental health. When you are eating nutrient dense, whole foods your entire system runs better. Adjusting foods to a more helpful diet can help regulate hormones, reduce inflammation, help regulate dopamine and serotonin and impact your digestion and sleep. And show me a happy person who's not sleeping well right?

If we don't have enough nutrients to support our body, our body cannot support us.

There’s a good reason so many people struggle to grasp why a lower carb, whole-foods approach to eating is a better choice for health and wellness: their fundamental paradigm – the core theory that underpins everything else in that belief system – is built on the belief that carbs/glucose is the main fuel source for the human body. This has been sold to us for decades in the form of fear mongering, targeted marketing campaigns and corporation backed "research" that happens to find the exact results that the corporations have paid for (which is how carbs should be the primary food source, and no surprise here, carbs are exactly what these corporations make).

Since our brain health is directly linked to our gut health, when your gut is in dis-ease, your brain is impacted as well. We keep a healthy gut via our nutrition, which means that making health conscious choices - eating whole foods, limiting processed foods and sugar - has a direct impact on our brain's ability to function optimally.

Corporations are incentivized to keep you addicted to processed foods (and thus in fight/flight):

1. Processed carbs are addicting. So they make more money by making foods high in sugar and carbs because people will become addicted and buy more. They also burn more quickly, which means you need to eat "every three hours" so you don't get hungry. These multi-billion dollar corporations make their profits off of processed foods, which have been engineered to be addicting, cheap and easily accessible.

2. Sugar is addicting, again they make more money because people become addicted to these foods and buy more. They even sell a very clever marketing campaign - the afternoon slump. Better eat a high carb snack then so you have energy for the afternoon. What they don't tell you is that being in a carb cycle makes your energy crash. Enter you feeling like you're the problem which then drives you to buy their product to try and fix your "broken system."

3. It's cheaper to manufacture franken foods than to produce and support whole foods, so their profit margins are higher. This also means these corporations have a huge financial stake in keeping the price of these foods as low as possible, so they are always looking for the next cheaper ingredient - I bet you can guess where that leaves foods that are full of nutrients.

4. Poor health drives medical costs drives consumer spending drives "healthy" prepackaged foods drives medical costs and you see the spiral here right? Again, these foods are engineered and the marketing campaigns are engineered to keep you outsourcing your power, buying into their idea that you are broken and in need of fixing and constantly spending money on the next frankenfood that promises health.

5. When you are chronically stressed, you make decisions that trigger reward centers in your brain, which likely means you are buying things you don't need in order to feel good. Have you ever wondered "why do I keep spending money on crap?" It's because of the temporary high that you get, which feels good and like a win when you're chronically stressed. Eating toxic, processed foods puts your body into fight or flight, which makes you a more impulsive shopper, which then makes corporations much more money.

How corporations make and keep us fat

Under normal human circumstances, we actually require only minimal amounts of glucose, most or all of which can be supplied by the liver as needed on a daily basis. The simple frustrating fact that carbs/glucose are so readily available and cheap today doesn’t mean that we should depend on them as a primary source of fuel, in fact, we should mostly avoid them unless they're from whole food sources (think rice, potatoes, veggies), especially if they aren't whole foods. 

There are so many studies demonstrating that excess processed food intake is one of the main drivers to obesity, and that the standard American diet is driving health problems. Sure, there are a ton of fitness influences who claim to eat donuts, pancakes and waffles for breakfast every morning, eat a burger and fries for lunch and pizza daily but they are just lying. There is no way they have a six pack and eat those foods daily, but it looks good in Instagram. Sure thing boo, you eat 4823904328 calories a day and have a six pack.

Are Carbs Bad?

Putting garbage into your system and expecting it to run optimally isn't just unrealistic, it's a guaranteed way to fail and to feel miserable. When we give our body what it needs to thrive, not only do we have more energy, we get a whole host of other benefits: mental clarity, more stable moods, balanced hormones and the ability to repair. When your body is constantly stressed out from eating toxic foods, you cannot repair or build because your body is too busy trying to survive. When you are fueling your body properly, your system can then run optimally - giving you lasting energy, mental clarity and a steady fuel source without the crashes. This is one of the pillars of my approach - true self care means taking care of your body in a holistic way. 

Why nutrition matters for mental health

The human body is a very delicate machine, and while it's a powerhouse for repair and always working for you - each system is interconnected. Since our bodies are designed to run on whole foods (there were no meal bars or cereal for most of human evolution), whole foods are our preferred food source. This editorial completed in 2017 ran a meta-analysis on studies that researched nutrition and mental health and found that "the more one eats a Western or highly processed diet, the more one is at risk for developing psychiatric symptoms, such as depression and anxiety" and the more whole foods diet one eats, the "more one is protected from developing a mental disorder." This makes sense when you think about it, foods that are engineered to be addicting, cheap and mass-manufactured are not made to support your health. The more we stray from how our bodies are designed (to eat foods that came from the ground or were alive at one time), the sicker we are and become.

It’s possible to live a very long and healthy life never consuming much – if any – in the way of processed carbs/sugars, provided you get adequate dietary protein and fat. The same can’t be said for going too long without protein or fat though. Like sleep, if you go too long without either of those macronutrients and you will eventually get sick and die. Evolution is a tricky little thing - selection pressure only keeps what is helpful - we are designed to store and prefer fat because it works best. In other words, our genes expect us to function optimally when we eat whole foods and our systems is fueled as designed.

Nutrition is something I discuss with almost all of my clients, since it's one area we can get some solid success in with a little bit of education. When my clients start eating more whole foods they report feeling happier, better physically and having more energy. These may seem totally logical, but you'd be surprised how often people forget to take a holistic approach to mental health.

Nutrition can either support your system or poison it.

When your system is stressed, all of your energy is going to surviving rather than thriving, which leads to altered making decisions you wouldn't normally be making, seeking safety above all costs and feeling overwhelmed and burned out. While nutrition won't solve all your problems, it makes a lot more sense to put your energy into what you can control (what you eat) to help support you while you do the other work.

Trust me, healing in energy intensive and it's a lot easier to do when you're feeling better and eating well.

20 Healthy Fats That Won't Make You Fat | Eat This Not That. Is Fat Healthy?

Does This Mean I Never Eat Processed Foods Again?

"My precious bread! You can pry it from my cold, dead hands heathen!" I hear you say. Nah, friend. Ya girl still eats processed carbs, just not all the time and with full admission that I know what happens when I choose it - but I'll never stop eating Cuban Bread. Do I eat bread and pasta and baked goods every day? Not really, but I do eat them sometimes. Think of processed foods as elective, eat them if you want to but fully understand consequences of eating them and how they'll affect your body. The real goal here is to make intentional choices and to choose more often than not foods that support your health. This means prioritizing starchy vegetables - think potatoes, yucca, squash, and root vegetables. Not only will this get you eating more vegetables, but we are then eating more whole foods that are natural.

Want to learn more? Check out my course on nutrition and mental wellness.

Now tell me, what part of this is jamming with you? 

What part of this article is surprising for you?

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Amanda Chils

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