How does a healthy diet affect mental and emotional health?

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We all know that eating right can help you maintain a healthy weight and avoid certain health problems, but your diet can also have a profound effect on your mood and sense of wellbeing. Studies have linked eating a typical Western diet—filled with processed meats, packaged meals, takeout food, and sugary snacks—with higher rates of depression, stress, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. Eating an unhealthy diet may even play a role in the development of mental health disorders such as ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia, or in the increased risk of suicide in young people.

Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, cooking meals at home, and reducing your intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, may help to improve mood and lower your risk for mental health problems. If you have already been diagnosed with a mental health problem, eating well can even help to manage your symptoms and regain control of your life.

While some specific foods or nutrients have been shown to have a beneficial effect on mood, it’s your overall dietary pattern that is most important. That means switching to a healthy diet doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to completely eliminate foods you enjoy to have a healthy diet and make a difference to the way you think and feel.

Set yourself up for success

Changing everything at once usually leads to cheating or giving up on your new eating plan. To set yourself up for success, think about planning a healthy diet as a number of small, manageable steps—like adding a salad to your diet once a day—rather than one big drastic change. As your small changes become habit, you can continue to add more healthy choices.

Prepare more of your own meals. Cooking more meals at home can help you take charge of what you’re eating and better monitor exactly what goes into your food.

Make the right changes. When cutting back on unhealthy foods in your diet, it’s important to replace them with healthy alternatives. Replacing dangerous trans fats with healthy fats (such as switching fried chicken for grilled fish) will make a positive difference to your health. Switching animal fats for refined carbohydrates, though (such as switching your breakfast bacon for a donut), won’t lower your risk for heart disease or improve your mood.

Simplify. Instead of being overly concerned with counting calories, think of your diet in terms of color, variety, and freshness. Focus on avoiding packaged and processed foods and opting for more fresh ingredients.

Read the labels. It’s important to be aware of what’s in your food as manufacturers often hide large amounts of sugar or unhealthy fats in packaged food, even food claiming to be healthy.

Focus on how you feel after eating. This will help foster healthy new habits and tastes. The more healthy food you eat, the better you’ll feel after a meal. The more junk food you eat, the more likely you are to feel uncomfortable, nauseous, or drained of energy.

Drink plenty of water. Water helps flush our systems of waste products and toxins, yet many people go through life dehydrated—causing tiredness, low energy, and headaches. It’s common to mistake thirst for hunger, so staying well hydrated will also help you make healthier food choices.

Moderation is key

Key to any healthy diet is moderation. But what is moderation? In essence, it means eating only as much food as your body needs. You should feel satisfied at the end of a meal, but not stuffed. Moderation is also about balance. Despite what fad diets would have you believe, we all need a balance of protein, fat, fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals to sustain a healthy body.

For many of us, moderation also means eating less than we do now. But it doesn’t mean eliminating the foods you love. Eating bacon for breakfast once a week, for example, could be considered moderation if you follow it with a healthy lunch and dinner—but not if you follow it with a box of donuts and a sausage pizza. If you eat 100 calories of chocolate one afternoon, balance it out by deducting 100 calories from your evening meal. If you’re still hungry, fill up with extra vegetables.

Try not to think of certain foods as “off-limits.” When you ban certain foods or food groups, it is natural to want those foods more, and then feel like a failure if you give in to temptation. Start by reducing portion sizes of unhealthy foods and not eating them as often. As you reduce your intake of unhealthy foods, you may find yourself craving them less or thinking of them as only occasional indulgences.

Think smaller portions. Serving sizes have ballooned recently. When dining out, choose a starter instead of an entree, split a dish with a friend, and don’t order supersized anything. At home, visual cues can help with portion sizes–your serving of meat, fish, or chicken should be the size of a deck of cards and half a cup of mashed potato, rice, or pasta is about the size of a traditional light bulb. If you don’t feel satisfied at the end of a meal, add more leafy green vegetables or round off the meal with fruit.

Take your time. Stop eating before you feel full. It actually takes a few minutes for your brain to tell your body that it has had enough food, so eat slowly.

Eat with others whenever possible. As well as the emotional benefits, this allows you to model healthy eating habits for your kids. Eating in front of the TV or computer often leads to mindless overeating.

It’s not just what you eat, but when you eat

  • Eat breakfast, and eat smaller meals throughout the day. A healthy breakfast can jumpstart your metabolism, while eating small, healthy meals (rather than the standard three large meals) keeps your energy up.
  • Avoid eating at night. Try to eat dinner earlier and fast for 14-16 hours until breakfast the next morning. Studies suggest that eating only when you’re most active and giving your digestive system a long break each day may help to regulate weight.

Cut back on sugar

Aside from portion size, perhaps the single biggest problem with the modern Western diet is the amount of added sugar in our food. As well as creating weight problems, too much sugar causes energy spikes and has been linked to diabetes, depression, and even an increase in suicidal behaviors in young people. Reducing the amount of candy and desserts you eat is only part of the solution as sugar is also hidden in foods such as bread, cereals, canned soups and vegetables, pasta sauce, margarine, instant mashed potatoes, frozen dinners, low-fat meals, fast food, and ketchup. Your body gets all it needs from sugar naturally occurring in food so all this added sugar just means a lot of empty calories.

Tips for reducing sugar in your diet

Slowly reduce the sugar in your diet a little at a time to give your taste buds time to adjust and wean yourself off the craving.

Avoid sugary drinks. Try drinking sparkling water with a splash of fruit juice instead.

Don’t replace saturated fat with sugar. Many of us make the mistake of replacing healthy sources of saturated fat, such as whole milk dairy, with refined carbs or sugary foods, thinking we’re making a healthier choice. Low-fat doesn’t necessarily mean healthy, especially when the fat has been replaced by added sugar to make up for loss of taste.

Avoid processed or packaged foods like canned soups, frozen dinners, or low-fat meals that often contain hidden sugar that quickly surpasses the recommended limit.

Be careful when eating out.  Most gravy, dressings and sauces are also packed with salt and sugar, so ask for it to be served on the side.

Eat healthier snacks.  Cut down on sweet snacks such as candy, chocolate, and cakes. Instead, eat naturally sweet food such as fruit, peppers, or natural peanut butter to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Check labels and choose low-sugar products.

Eat plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are low in calories and nutrient dense, which means they are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. Focus on eating the recommended daily minimum of five servings of fruit and vegetables and it will naturally fill you up and help you cut back on unhealthy foods. A serving is half a cup of raw fruit or veg or a small apple or banana, for example. Most of us need to double the amount we currently eat. To increase your intake, add berries to breakfast cereals, eat fruit for dessert, swap your usual side dish for a salad, and snack on vegetables such as carrots, snow peas, or cherry tomatoes instead of processed snack foods.

Eat a rainbow every day-the brighter the better

The brighter, deeper colored fruits and vegetables contain higher concentrations of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants—and different colors provide different benefits.

Greens. Branch out beyond lettuce. Kale, mustard greens, broccoli, and Chinese cabbage are all packed with calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, zinc, and vitamins A, C, E, and K.

Sweet vegetables. Naturally sweet vegetables—such as corn, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, yams, onions, and squash—add healthy sweetness to your meals and reduce your cravings for added sugars.

Fruit. Fruit is a tasty, satisfying way to fill up on fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. Berries are cancer-fighting, apples provide fiber, oranges and mangos offer vitamin C, and so on.

Fill up on fiber

Eating foods high in dietary fiber can help you stay regular, lower your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, and help you lose weight. Depending on your age and gender, nutrition experts recommend you eat at least 21 to 38 grams of fiber per day for optimal health. Many of us aren’t eating half that amount.

  • In general, the more natural and unprocessed the food, the higher it is in fiber.
  • Good sources of fiber include whole grains, wheat cereals, barley, oatmeal, beans, nuts, vegetables such as carrots, celery, and tomatoes, and fruits such as apples, berries, citrus fruits, and pears.
  • There is no fiber in meat, dairy, or sugar. Refined or “white” foods, such as white bread, white rice, and pastries, have had all or most of their fiber removed.
  • An easy way to add more fiber to your diet is to start your day with a whole grain cereal or add unprocessed wheat bran to your favorite cereal.

How fiber can help you lose weight

Since fiber stays in the stomach longer than other foods, the feeling of fullness will stay with you much longer, helping you eat less. Fiber also moves fat through your digestive system quicker so less of it is absorbed. And when you fill up on fiber, you’ll also have more energy for exercising.

Choose healthy carbs and whole grains

Choose healthy carbohydrates and fiber sources, especially whole grains, for long-lasting energy. Whole grains are rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants, which help to protect against coronary heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes.

What are healthy carbs and unhealthy carbs?

Healthy carbs (or good carbs) include whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Healthy carbs are digested slowly, helping you feel full longer and keeping blood sugar and insulin levels stable.

Unhealthy carbs (or bad carbs) are foods such as white flour, refined sugar, and white rice that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients. They digest quickly and cause spikes in blood sugar levels and energy.

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