Nutrition and Mental Health: A Basic Guide to Wellness
By Shawn Owens, RN, BSN
Mental health is a continuum just like physical health. In some ways, it can be very difficult to have one if you don’t have the other. When individuals are dealing with mental illness, there may seem to be no energy left over to focus on healthy eating. This can lead to a vicious cycle of worsening physical and mental health. The human brain, like the heart, is an organ that greatly benefits from healthy nutrition. Turns out, the same kind of nutrition for a healthy heart will benefit the brain as well. So, here are some tips for a head AND heart healthy diet.
Lots of research is available about healthy eating for all aspects of physical and mental health. This article focuses on wellness nutrition based on the mainstream sources of advice on diet, such as the American Dietetic Association and The American Heart Association. You can learn more by visiting their websites. These guidelines are general and are not intended to take the place of your physician or nurse practitioner’s advice. You may also find a registered dietician in your area at the American Dietetic Association website. This provider can be a powerful ally in setting and reaching your health goals.
The American Heart Association reminds us that a healthy diet and lifestyle are our best weapons to fight cardiovascular disease. They also recommend tracking your daily intake in a journal. People who routinely do this tend to have an easier time maintaining their weight. If we eat more than we expend, we will store the excess as body fat; and that is what we don’t want! Regular physical exercise for at least thirty minutes every day is also recommended to help you maintain your weight and inner fitness. Several studies have shown that vigorous walking for 30 minutes daily benefits mental health, especially the prevention of and recovery from depression.
Drink plenty of water. Aim for 6-8 glasses of water as a minimum each day. This prevents dehydration. Adequate hydration improves energy levels and may even improve your optimism. Again, the research has shown that people who drink 6-8 glasses of water daily eat about 100 less calories a day than people who don’t. That really adds up! You could prevent overeating up to 36,500 calories in a year – a little over ten pounds worth of calories!
Eat at least five servings of vegetables and fruits every day. Vegetables and fruits in their whole, natural state (as salads, whole fruit, or lightly steamed without added fat) are typically low in calories. The many nutrients they contain energize you and help you fight disease. Try to add a vegetable to every meal, plus a fresh salad at dinner. Have fruit for a snack each day. This simple change can easily become a habit and give you great health benefits.
For really optimal heart and head health, eat fish twice a week. Recent research shows that eating oily fish containing omega-3 fatty acids (including salmon, trout, and herring) can lower your risk of heart disease AND improve your brain chemical balance in favor of a sense of well being. For people who don’t eat fish, there may be benefits from taking a supplement with this nutrient in it and very little risk to doing so.
Make your grains whole grains and watch your portion sizes. Did you know that one slice of whole grain bread is one serving? Whole grains are really good for you, but can be dense in calories. Getting too many calories each day is what causes weight gain. Choose lean meats and eat poultry without the skin. Switch to fat free or 1 percent fat milk and dairy products.
These basic recommendations contribute in a positive way to every aspect of health. Try to make just one change a week. Once you get comfortable with that one change, make the next one until you have the lifestyle you want. Meeting a goal will add to your excitement and momentum for positive personal change!