Wellness Wednesday: The Link Between Diet and Mental Health

September 14, 2016

They say you are what you eat, and that applies to your brain function and mood as well. Ever notice how after you drink too much coffee you’re jittery and easily agitated, or that a bowl of yummy pasta feels amazing for an hour but then all you want to do is take a nap? Certain foods do have an effect on our moods, and we asked Hope and Grace advisory board member, author and expert Dr. Belisa Vranich, PsyD, to help us discover more about how we can eat for better mood and mental health:


Food Fact: There is a definite link between what you eat and brain activity

When I was a director of an outpatient clinic up in the Bronx, children would come in who supposedly had ADD, and the first thing I would always ask was what they had for breakfast. It was amazing how many parents were feeding their kids tons of sugar and had such little knowledge of nutrition. One would say, “He doesn’t eat candy,” and then state that her child had a bag of sour patch kids for breakfast. In her mind, since they were sour, they couldn’t have sugar in them. Meanwhile, the kid was bouncing off the walls with a misdiagnosis of ADD.

The mental health of children is sensitive to food: eating the wrong things, feeling hungry or eating too much — all of these will show different symptoms, so asking them what or if they ate is really important.”


Food Fact: Food sensitivities and allergies can be linked

“I would have to say in general mental health problems look very different then food allergies, but you should always consider them because they make an impact. I have people coming in with anxiety all the time, and whatever they are eating isn’t helping their anxiety. If you are a super anxious person and love coffee, it’s not going to be good for you, especially if it’s keeping you awake and not allowing you to calm down at all. That is an important topic. Is what you’re eating supporting your quest for mental health or is it getting in the way?”


Food Fact: You should eat to support your energy and mental health throughout the day rather than feeding cravings.

If your mood and energy fluctuates throughout the day, you need to ensure what you eat supports consistent energy and mood. The fact is, we eat in such impulsive spurts related to our cravings that we’re bound to have mood swings around food. If you get depressed at different parts of the day and are snacking on sugar and caffeine and loading up on simple carbs, that manner of eating will definitely make those energy and mood swings bigger. Therefore, eating right can help make your mental health much more manageable.

This is where the glycemic index comes in. The consumption of food to maintain blood sugar levels is important, and attention and mood crash due to the high consumption of sugar, caffeine and simple carbs, leaving people feeling depressed because their sugar and caffeine buzz has bottomed out.

Bottom line: you can only know about and sufficiently deal with your mental health when you have cleaned up your diet. It’s important to make the distinction between actual mental health concerns and poor diet affecting your mood.”


Food Fact: It’s possible to manage cravings for the bad stuff

Some people get into a loop of depression or anxiety and we crave something either salty, crunchy, fatty or sweet. Then you get into a cycle where you treat yourself or you give into stress response and eat too much of it and it starts a downward spiral where you ate a bunch of cookies or some other simple sugar/carb combination.

You have to name that problem so you can problem solve around it. People trying to eat better always need to have a healthy snack in their bag. If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail. If you let yourself get hungry, you will make bad food choices. You have to problem solve beforehand, which means carrying nuts or an apple with you, and then reminding yourself how you feel when you eat the bad stuff so you break the cycle.

Just take a moment to think about it. When you’re feeling sad or guilty or depressed, you scarf down whatever it is so fast you don’t even taste it, then feel really guilty and beat yourself up afterwards. If you train yourself to eat only when you’re hungry, and to watch out for words like “deserve,” you can start the break the cycle. Don’t reward yourself with food. Anything around food and “deserve” is going to have a bad ending. Just know that. Then if you pause, eat an apple, and essentially deal with yourself like a kid where you say that if you’re still hungry later you can have whatever it is, you start to realize that you’re full after the apple and you don’t even really want it. That’s how to you start to conquer the cravings so you can deal with the underlying issues. Set boundaries for yourself. Your mental health is worth more than the coffee or the cookies or the pasta. The link between diet and mental health is real. Give yourself the best chance possible at a happy, healthy life.”