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How to eat for good mental health

Have you noticed all the news lately about how our mental health and even PTSD are influenced by the food we eat?

Well, it seems there’s truth to it, so we went in search of a nutrition expert – one who works closely with Veterans – to get the lowdown for you. Here’s everything you need to know.

Adam Child is a Perth dietitian who has worked with WA veterans for the past few years. Even he is surprised by the affect that diet can have on a person’s mental health.

He argues that while it’s easy to assume that most people will feel happier after enjoying weight loss through a modified diet, it’s the change in food quality that drives an improvement in mood and sleep, not just a sleeker frame. It’s advice he gives at his practise, Fuel Your Life.

Below, he offers some simple tips on how you can tweak your food intake to improve your mental health.

Tryptophan, the mood enhancer

Tryptophan is an amino acid, which is found in many protein-rich foods. This essential amino acid cannot be produced by the body, so it is essential that we consume it in our diet.

Tryptophan plays a crucial role in the production of the hormone, serotonin, and in the regulation of sleep. When Tryptophan is ingested, it is absorbed through the small intestine and makes its way to the brain, where it is used to produce serotonin. A low production of serotonin results in both sleep disturbance and lowered mood.

If you struggle to fall asleep or find yourself waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep, you may not be consuming enough Tryptophan. Tryptophan is found in meat and some protein-based plant sources. These foods include: red meat, chicken/turkey, fish, tofu, cheese, nuts and seeds, eggs, beans and lentils and oats.

Omega-3 Fats, the good oils

Omega-3 is often touted to improve cholesterol levels and result in a healthy cardiovascular system. But did you know that it also plays an integral role in the health of your central nervous system?

The central nervous system is the highway that carries all communication from the brain to the body, and vice versa. A healthy nervous system means there are no road blocks, so signals can travel efficiently and quickly throughout the body. A regular intake of Omega-3s ensures a speedy and efficient passage for information, while helping dictate our mental and physical functions.

Foods that contribute to your intake of Omega-3 are oily fish and eggs. However, if you don’t like these foods, you can try a supplement of 1g per day (1x1000mg tablet), which has been shown to improve depression, anxiety and sleep.

Zinc, Selenium and Folate, the power minerals

Zinc, selenium and folate are minerals that are only needed in small quantities, but if you are suffering symptoms of depression, reduced sleep and low mood, they have a big part to play.

Some studies have found lower levels of these minerals in the diets of people suffering with mental health issues. These minerals can be found in the following food groups:

  • Zinc: meat, nuts and seeds, baked beans, all bran and lentils
  • Selenium: eggs, tofu, baked beans, nuts and seeds, brown rice and swiss cheese
  • Folate: spinach, broccoli, dried legumes, potato with the skin on, avocado, asparagus and vegemite. Note too much alcohol will reduce the amount of folate your body absorbs.

So, what do you do with this information?

We recommend seeking out a dietitian for exact advice and strategies to address mental health issues.

But he also provided some simple tips to help you steer things around:

  1. Legumes and lentils are your friends. Include ½ cup of chickpeas or lentils in some mince, curry or spaghetti bolognaise – and have baked beans on toast twice a week.
  2. Eat eggs as a snack, in a salad, as a baked frittata or quiche once a week in replacement of meat.
  3. Increase your vegetable variety at dinner. Australians tend to only have three vegetable types at dinner. Buy mixed fruit-and-vegetable boxes from your grocer to try new vegetables that you haven’t eaten before.
  4. Do not cut out carbs! Replace your white crackers, bread, wraps and rice with wholemeal or wholegrain alternatives. These will boost your mood and prevent that HANGRY feeling.
  5. Eat oily fish 2-3 times a week; try a tin of tuna or salmon sandwich at lunch or as a snack.
  6. Eat a green vegetable every day. This is great for your waistline and your mood, so go nuts on green.

If this still feels like an information overload, Adam suggests taking a step back and examining your diet one meal at a time. Think about what you eat for breakfast and what you can change to help it include some of those foods. If you only have toast and jam, maybe have one with an egg, Vegemite or cheese.

Do this for all your meals and you should be able to find a way to introduce some of the foods into your diet.

Dietary change should not be complex, if you follow those simple tips, you just might find that you are surprised by the end result.

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