Food & Drink Opinion

#MeatlessMondays: Foods To Improve Mental Health

Comfort foods seem to support mental health in that they make you feel good while you’re eating them.

My comfort food is fries – I can always eat fries! Feeding that craving feels good and eating foods you know and enjoy also feels good.

But many ‘comfort foods’ are unhealthy and in the long-term can have detrimental effects on your physical and mental health.

There is a lot of new research into how foods affect mental health. Eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts has been shown to have positive effects on mental health, including preventing diseases such as depression and anxiety and helping to reduce stress.

Foods that are highly processed and contain a lot of unhealthy fats and refined sugars (such as cookies, chips/crisps, etc) cause a spike in your blood sugar that drops quickly and raises the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Eating these types of food regularly can lead to unstable moods and puts you at a higher risk for depression and anxiety.  

Leafy greens, such as kale, sukuma wiki and dodo, are high in iron and folic acid, which studies show protects against depression and dementia.

Seeds, such as pumpkin and other squash seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds and sunflower seeds, contain large amounts of tryptophan, an amino acid that converts into serotonin, a ‘happy hormone’ that helps stabilize mood and promote good sleep. Sleep is essential to mental health, so ensuring you get enough, good quality sleep also helps maintain your mental health.

Some other vegan foods with tryptophan are soy (soy beans, tofu), oats, beans and lentils. Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds also have selenium – people with low selenium levels often feel depressed and anxious.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have a significant impact on mental health, not only proven to be lower in those with depression, but also that adding more omega-3 to a person’s diet can improve their depression symptoms. Some vegan sources of omega-3s are chia seeds, walnuts, flax seeds, soybeans and leafy green vegetables.

The gut and the mind are linked – you’ve probably felt this when you’re stressed or nervous about something and you get a stomach-ache.

The gut is also the only organ with a nervous system, so keeping it healthy can have a significant impact on mental health.

Have you ever heard the term ‘hangry’ – someone who feels angry when they’re hungry? This can be due to the connection between gut and mind. If your gut feels bad, it often makes you feel angry or upset. One of the best ways to keep your gut healthy is to feed it fibre. Some high-fibre foods are beans, lentils, oats, popcorn, chia seeds, broccoli, avocados, apples, bananas, carrots and beets, and many more! Ensuring you’re getting enough fibre in your diet helps your physical and mental health.

An easy meal to incorporate these foods is oatmeal with chia seeds and bananas or a seedy brown bread with avocado for breakfast. Beans with carrots and broccoli is another option. Sprinkling sesame seeds or sunflower seeds on a meal is an easy way to add a little more tryptophan to your diet. I like sesame seeds on my veggie stir-fries and sunflower seeds on my salads. I eat pumpkin seeds as a snack and have been finding them at shops all around Kigali lately!

During this difficult Memorial period, it’s important to take steps to guard your mental health – eating a healthy diet can be another approach you take to support your mental health.

Thanks to this amazing article where I pulled a lot of the information needed (plus Google!): Sarris J, Logan AC, Akbaraly TN et al. for The International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research. Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry. Lancet Psychiatry. 2015; 2: 271-274

Curious about the vegan lifestyle in Rwanda? Follow me on my Instagram @vegan_in_rwanda

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