Guest article by MINES partner and coach Michelle Zellner

March is National Nutrition Month, so we are going to talk about your brain. Trust me, it will make total sense. Over the last few years, I have been involved in and facilitated many conversations about mental health. It’s gratifying to be part of a movement where people are beginning to be comfortable speaking up about their own struggles and others are eager to learn how to recognize and support someone working through challenges.

As people gain awareness and build a mental health toolkit, it gets filled with practices to reduce and manage stress. Mindfulness, breathing, journaling, and therapy, all have a positive impact on mental health. Creativity and physical activity are both magical for our minds. Recognizing and regulating emotions is a valuable life skill and once developed will enhance mental wellbeing. Laughter and high-quality social interactions are easy ways to get a dopamine hit—and who doesn’t like that!?

Noticeably absent from the discussion, however, is the topic of food. I find this fascinating, as we like to talk about food all the time—what we should eat, what we shouldn’t eat, what we are going to eat, what we just ate, etc. Rarely are we talking about it in the context of mental health.

And yet, we have some kind of feeling about nearly every food (and beverage) choice we do or don’t make. Those feelings generate beliefs, which ultimately drive our actions. And throughout the entire cycle, there are multiple impacts on our mental health.

So let’s talk about it.

Food is:

  • a friend who soothes and comforts you
  • entertainment when you are bored
  • a delicious distraction when you don’t want to deal with a situation in front of you
  • an element that helps you relive fond experiences
  • something that brings joy as you connect with culture or celebration
  • a reward for doing something hard
  • something you can’t live without

Food also:

  • is an enemy who prevents you from being your best self
  • can be an obstacle to reaching your goals
  • alters decision-making capabilities
  • brings on feelings of guilt and shame
  • is an anxiety-inducing element of social engagements
  • leads to punishing thoughts and behaviors
  • is something you can’t stop thinking about

We each have a unique relationship with food, and it’s usually rather complex. Exploring, acknowledging, and adjusting yours will likely lead to enhanced mental health. What to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and how we feel about what we eat—all are important pieces of the dietary puzzle. Most of us have never been taught the basics, which makes the complicated pieces impossible to sort out.

So let’s go basic.  Eat real food.

If, in theory, you could go outside and find, it’s real food that a human body recognizes and understands how to process. These foods grow in the ground and hang off bushes and trees. You can find real food swimming in water and roaming in a pasture. Real food can take a little bit of effort to get into edible form, but it’s fairly simple to determine how it came to be what you are about to ingest.

What does real food have to do with your mental health?  Everything.

Whole foods (WF) offer the raw materials your body uses to create cells, organ tissue, muscles, bones, hormones, neurotransmitters, protective layers, micro-organisms—-and everything else an optimally functioning human needs. The alternative, what I call “food-like substances” (FLS), offer little to no quality resources and instead supply your body with a variety of components it doesn’t need and cause it harm. If overall consumption of FLS is greater than consumption of WF the result could lean toward a less than optimally functioning human, maybe even one with various health conditions.

For many years I have been pitching PFF is Your BFF® (Protein Fat Fiber is your Best Friend Forever), as well as guiding individuals toward an understanding of how to fuel a human body. It’s impossible in the scope of this article to outline all the details, so here are a few highlights.

  1. Steady blood sugar. It’s the key to your health and happiness—and maybe the health and happiness of people around you. When blood sugar drops, you might get irritated, frustrated, or find it difficult to concentrate. None of which is great for mental wellbeing. There’s a good chance you’ll reach for some version of sugar—and then beat yourself up for eating that sugar. And then eat more sugar to feel better about feeling bad for eating sugar. You know how this goes!
  2. Protein, or more specifically the amino acids we get from consuming foods that have protein, are used to create hormones and neurotransmitters. These are the chemical messengers responsible for operating your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
  3. Fat is your friend! Despite what we’ve been fed for decades, fat is not the devil. In fact, it is a key contributor to health and happiness. I don’t know about you, but back in the day when I was afraid to eat fat, I was hungry and irritated all the time. Turns out that wasn’t just my experience as we now have plenty of research to indicate that low-fat diets can increase the likelihood of depression, irritability, and anger. Dietary fats directly affect brain processes via transmission of signals and when you recognize that 70% of brain matter is made up of fat, it’s no wonder that low intake can cause dysregulation. Of course, the type of dietary fats matter. Eat real food, with a variety of sources of fat to nourish your noggin with essential fatty acids. Avoid the ultra-processed ones that often include some type of brain and body-damaging trans fat.
  4. Fiber is, among other things, food for your gut bacteria. Referred to as the “second brain” the microbiome in the gut consists of communication pathways with every system in the body. There are direct links to gut imbalances and mental health and mood disorders. Fiber comes from plants, so eat plenty of them and a wide variety to offer your gut critters options for their feasting.
  5. Have you ever heard of BDNF? Brain-derived neurotrophic factor is a chemical produced in the brain that supports overall cognitive function and mental wellbeing. It’s so powerful, that many consider it a natural anti-depressant and low levels may contribute to the onset of depression and anxiety. The raw materials for BDNF production need to be introduced to the body—via food. They include a variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and polyphenol compounds found in real foods. In addition, insulin resistance, often the result of a habit of highly processed food consumption, prohibits the brain from producing BDNF. Another reason to minimize FLS choices!

The message seems pretty clear—eat real food. Yes, the puzzle can be complicated, but I believe if you take time to learn the basics and gain an appreciation for the powerful impact various types of fuel have on mental health, the harder stuff will be easier to digest. Food can either heal you or hurt you. It’s determining the appropriate balance of choices, and having a positive attitude about ALL the choices that leads to a healthy attitude, not only about your food, but life in general.

To Your Wellbeing,

The MINES Team