One of the keys to a healthy body is making the right food choices. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, low-fat dairy foods, and lean meats, poultry, and fish can go a long way toward lowering your risk of physical health problems.
Did you know that nutritious foods can also protect your mental health? Although no single nutrient or eating plan can cure depression, good overall nutrition is essential for your mental well-being. Eating foods that are rich in essential vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, protein, and fatty acids is key to keeping your brain in good working order.
Your brain, like other organs, responds to what you eat and drink. It needs several vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to stay healthy. If you deprive your brain of these essential nutrients, it can’t function properly. This can raise your risk of mental health problems.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals play a key role in your brain health. Vitamins that are particularly important for your brain include:
- vitamin C
- vitamin D
- B vitamins
To function properly, your brain also depends on minerals, such as:
Carbohydrates serve a few purposes in nourishing your brain. At the most basic level, your brain depends on glucose for energy. This simple sugar is derived from carbohydrates in your diet. Carbohydrates also help stimulate your brain’s production of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin.
Rather than snacking on sweets and processed grains, choose complex carbohydrates, such as those found in:
- fruits and vegetables
- whole-grain foods
Your body converts these carbohydrates into glucose more slowly than simple carbohydrates, which are found in processed sugars and grains. As a result, complex carbohydrates provide a more stable and consistent flow of fuel to your brain.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. They’re essential to your brain’s production of neurotransmitters. These are a type of chemical messenger that carry signals between your nerve cells.
For example, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that’s responsible for feelings of contentment. It’s made from the amino acid tryptophan. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps you to feel motivated. It’s derived from the amino acid phenylalanine. Your body absorbs these amino acids from foods in your diet.
Fatty acids are also critical to your brain health. A large part of your brain is made up of fat, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Your body can’t make these essential fatty acids on its own. Instead, it absorbs them from foods you eat.
It’s best to get an equal balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your diet. Unfortunately, the typical Western diet contains excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids and insufficient amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
One final important nutrient for your brain is water. It makes up the majority of your brain mass. Even mild dehydration can lead to mental health symptoms, such as irritability and loss of concentration.
Foods to eat
To help your brain function properly, eat a variety of foods that are rich in essential nutrients, including:
- vitamin C: citrus fruits, leafy green vegetables, and other fruits and vegetables
- vitamin D: salmon, cod, shrimp, eggs, and fortified milk, juice, and cereal products
- B vitamins: red meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, whole grains, and leafy green vegetables
- magnesium, selenium, and zinc: nuts, seeds, whole grains, green vegetables, and fish
- complex carbohydrates: whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, quinoa, millet, legumes, and starchy vegetables, such potatoes, corn, peas, and winter squash
- tryptophan: lean red meat, poultry, eggs, and beans
- phenylalanine: lean red meat, chicken, eggs, dairy products, soybeans, and seeds
- omega-3 fatty acids: salmon, trout, tuna, beans, walnuts, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, cantaloupe, chia and hemp seeds, and canola and flax seed oil
- omega-6 fatty acids: poultry, eggs, grains, and vegetable oils
Foods to avoid
Try to avoid or limit these foods and beverages:
- caffeinated drinks, such as tea, coffee, and soft drinks
- alcoholic drinks
- sugary foods
- deep-fried foods
- refined and processed foods
Many refined and processed foods, sugary foods, and deep-fried foods are high in calories and low in brain-healthy nutrients. Eating too many of them can raise your risk of physical and mental health problems.
Eating healthy is important to not only your physical health, but your mental well-being too. Incorporating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy foods, and lean meats, poultry, and fish into your diet can help you stay healthy and energized. Along with exercising regularly and getting enough sleep, eating a well-balanced diet can do wonders for your mental well-being.