October 25, 2022

Feel good by eating right

What you eat can impact your mental health.

A whole food, plant-based diet is associated with improved mental health.

Many of us are familiar with the saying ‘You are what you eat.’ It turns out that what you eat not only has an impact on your physical health, but also has a direct influence on your mental health.

According to Silvia Delgado, a registered dietician for Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, an unhealthy diet rich in carbohydrates, sugar, and fatty foods can contribute to or even deepen existing anxiety and depression; unhealthy diets can also promote poor memory and neurological disease such as dementia.

Not all diets are mentally healthy

“Diets that promote anxiety or depression include refined starches, sugars, and saturated fatty acids,” Delgado said. “Higher intake of saturated fatty acids in young adulthood, as well as later in life, is associated with worse cognitive function, memory impairment, and increased vulnerability to age-related deficits and neurological diseases — including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Sources of saturated fatty acids include butter, ghee, lard, coconut oil, cheese, and fatty meats. High saturated fats can potentially alter cognitive function by promoting brain inflammation.”

A “Western diet” — including consumption of sweetened beverages, refined foods, fried food, processed meat, refined grains, snacks, and pastries — has also been associated with an increased risk of depression in studies, Delgado noted. 

A diet higher on dietary glycemic index —refined pasta, white rice, and white bread — puts people at risk for developing diabetes and is also associated with an increased risk of depression. Higher consumption of added sugar was also associated with a heightened possibility of depression.

Reflect on your stress and associated eating habits

Foods eaten during stressful times typically favor the foods mentioned earlier. These foods are known as comfort foods because they seemingly make us feel better when we experience difficult emotions. Over the past several years, stress has increased because of the pandemic and economic conditions. These stress periods may have encouraged many people to consider less healthy diets, negatively impacting their mental health.

Delgado recommends taking a moment to reflect on our stress levels and consider what triggers stress for us, and assessing our associated eating habits, which typically are not healthy. This is an opportunity to pause and adjust our diet to improve our mental health. Discover additional support for emotional wellness to help manage stress and eating habits.

Delgado noted that a whole food, plant-based diet is associated with healthier gut bacteria, and a healthier gut is associated with improved mental health. When you stick to a diet of healthy food, you are setting yourself up for fewer mood fluctuations, an overall happier outlook on life, and an improved ability to focus.

Become more familiar with eating healthy; it is easy and delicious, and you will feel better when unhealthy habits are eliminated, Delgado added.

Eat healthily. Be happy. Your mind and body are connected. Kaiser Permanente can help you take care of both.