We all turn to our go-to comfort foods when we are stressed or sad. Whether it is a chocolate bar or a bowl of greasy chips, these cravings are both physical and emotional. However, when we eat too much junk food, we often feel worse after the initial high fades away.

Would you believe me if I told you that a salad could lift your spirits better than a bag full of Hershey Kisses? More and more research is pointing to links between how healthy eating can help stabilize our moods better and even help reduce the risk of depression. There is even a whole science – nutritional neuroscience – that looks at the ways what we eat affects our moods and behaviors.

What is the research saying?

There are too many individual studies to cover them all, but here is a small sampling of what scientists have been finding.

A scientific review in the Lancet Psychiatry recently emphasized the role proper nutrition plays when it comes to mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The study co-author David Mischoulon, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital told Yahoo Health however that the link between diet and risk of depression isn't the same across the board, "If your diet is deficient in some nutrients, it can have many effects on the brain. It can be subtle in some people and may result in psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and so forth in others."

An anecdotal, but provocative case report published in Neurocase in 2013 found that a high fat, moderate protein and low carb diet helped stabilize moods in two patients with bipolar disorder better than just medication alone.

A lot of attention has also been given to the gut microbiome and the role it plays in our health. The diversity of bacteria in our stomachs not only affects our immune system, but might also be linked to our moods and behaviors. Some research has found that people suffering from mood disorders tend to have more harmful than good bacteria, but still so little is known. Current gut microbiome studies have been mostly done on mice, and so far there is no definitive way to know exactly what the ideal gut microbiome looks like.

However when asked about the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics to our mental health, Katie Cavuto, MS, RD, culinary nutritionists and dietitian for the Phillies explains, "There is little downside to supporting the healthy bacteria in the GI tract – especially considering the fact that prebiotic foods (they feed the healthy bacteria in our guts) are high fiber fruits and vegetables and let's be honest, we can all stand to eat more of them!"

According to Stacey Cahn, Ph.D., associate professor of Clinical Psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, despite all the current hype, research on the link between nutrition and mental health has been going on for many years, noting the 1944 University of Minnesota "Minnesota Starvation Experiment" which studied the effects on wartime conscientious objectors who volunteered for the study. The researchers found that when calories were cut in half, many of the participants developed eating-related rituals and became depressed and obsessed with food.

During the rehabilitation period, the researchers experimented with different diets and supplements to help them recover and what they found out was that there is no substitution for calories. Supplementation isn't always the answer. "I'm not aware of any evidence that supports adding more of any one nutrient to enhance mood, unless you have an actual deficiency," Cahn explains.

A good example of when a supplement is needed, however, is when people follow a vegan diet. "Although there can be health and ethical benefits to a vegan, B12 is naturally occurring only in animal products, and a deficiency in B12 is associated with significant health risks including memory, cognitive function and mood," she says.

Interesting enough, while carbohydrates tend to get a bad rap these days, a study in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry in 2008, discovered that not eating enough carbohydrates can also increase the risk of depression because foods rich in carbohydrates trigger feel-good serotonin and tryptophan. This doesn't mean to go stock pile up on refined grains and sugary sweets though. The authors of the study recommend eating more of whole grains and fruits and vegetables as well as seafood, lean meat, nuts and legumes.

While still much research has to be done, and no consensus has been reached on exactly how to prescribe certain foods or diet to boost mental health, there are those who feel this idea of food as medicine is already practiced in some ways.

"I subscribe to the mentality that food can and does act as medicine. I think we already are writing nutrition prescriptions for mental illness both in food recommendations and herbal therapies, "says Cavuto.

What foods should you be eating?

Just like with our physical health, our mental health seems to benefit from eating less processed food and adopting a diet similar to the Mediterranean diet.

Cavuto suggests consuming a diet rich in whole foods paired with the following recommendations:

1) Embrace healthy fats like nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado and small, wild-caught fish. They are satisfying, satiating and contain heart healthy and contain nutrients that decrease inflammation.

2) Decrease your processed food intake and, instead, focus on whole, nutrient dense foods like colorful vegetables, fruits, high-quality animal proteins, beans, whole grains and the aforementioned healthy fats.

3) Dramatically decrease your intake of added sugars which are found in many processed foods, sweetened beverages and desserts.

4) Strive to create a nutrient dense, nourishing plate which helps to naturally crowd out less healthy options

Supplementation should not replace medication

It is important to note that good nutrition alone won't cure a person of a mental illness so don't stop your medication if you are under treatment.  Remember also that taking a nutritional supplement only helps if you have a true deficiency. Loading up on vitamin supplements is not the answer.

Much more research is needed on the role of nutrition in mental health, however, it seems clear that a well-balanced diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, proteins and carbohydrates is not only important to our body, but also our mind. We are truly what we eat.


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