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The Connection Between Nutrition & Mental Health Plus 12 Mental Health Boosting Foods


Finally, dietetics professionals aren’t only sought after for weight management. Nutritional expertise are needed in psychiatry, too.

This blog post was inspired by a recent article in the Wall Street Journal and someone who reached out to me about diet and mental health.

I couldn’t be more excited to be a Registered Dietitian in a time where we are connecting our nutritional habits with so many health conditions.

What is the Connection Between Nutrition & Mental Health?

Well, we eat food because we need the nutrients it provides. There are 6 essential nutrients, essential meaning we need to eat it to survive.

The 6 Essential Nutrients:

  • Carbohydrates

  • Fats

  • Proteins

  • Vitamins

  • Minerals

  • Water

The macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats and proteins. They are called “macro” because we need a relatively large amount of them. We need to eat these things in grams.

Vitamins and minerals are called micronutrients because we only need a “micro” amount of them. We only need them in milligrams or even tinier micrograms. This is why supplements are often too risky to take because they provide an excessive amount of vitamins.

Oh, that reminds me nothing I write on this blog is to be substituted for medical advice. Please consider talking to your doctor , or better yet your dietitian, before making any major nutritional changes in attempt to treat something. I write to share interesting topics but everyone is unique soooo…. Yea!

Anyways back to the food and mood stuff!

We were talking about the 6 essential nutrients and okay, so we need to eat them to survive. Moving right along here!

The Vitamins & Minerals Important in Mental Health

So obviously every vitamins and mineral is important to sustain health in all of our organ systems but there are a few key nutrients that researchers are scoping out and identifying as important in preventing and treating depressive disorders.

In Fact, there will be a journal article titles Antidepressant Foods: An Evidence-based Nutrient Profile System for Depression” by Dr. Drew Ramsey coming out next month in the World Journal of Psychiatry. Boy, do I miss having access to journals. I’m going to have to hunt that one down or pay for it because that is superbly interesting to me!

Basically what Dr. Drew Ramsey has been working on according to a Google Scholar search of mine using the search terms ‘drew ramsey’ ‘nutrition’ ‘mental health’ is the connection between our cognition and nutrient intake.

He even wrote a book about it which, I’ll be honest I tend to shy away from nutrition books because most of the time they try and get us to eliminate a bunch of foods and create this food elitist status that really grinds my gears. However, I’m thinking about giving this a read because if it has to do with mental health, I am all about it.

You may be curious why I am interested in mental health and nutrition?Where did this curiosity come from?

Well, let me tell you a little story.A case study, to be more specific.

12 Year Old Female Loses Dramatic Amount of Weight

When I was a dietetic intern working at a hospital, one of my assignments for the internship was to adopt a case and present it to my peers. I would follow this 1 patient along for as long as they were admitted in the hospital and I would share my assessment, diagnosis, intervention, and evaluation strategies with the dietitians at the hospital, my peers in my internship and innocent dietetic professional passers by at the New York State Academy of Dietetics.

In other words, this assignment was a mo-fo’in beast and since it was going to be what I spent a lot of mental time and energy on I wanted it to be interesting.

What is more interesting that psychiatric disorders? Well, plenty of things are but I am so ridiculously fascinated with the human mind and our brains so I chose to follow a patient who had conversion disorder. OH, I also wanted to follow a pediatric patient because I wanted to learn more about pediatric nutrition so my case study was a 12 year old female patient with conversion disorder.

What was her nutritional problem / condition? She was getting inadequate energy intake , aka not getting enough calories and therefore was losing a significant amount of weight. Significant has an actual meaning in science and medicine. Also with her being 12, developing at a normal rate is critical and that wasn’t happening with this extreme weight loss.

Oh- I should mention she was amish which meant there was a major cultural learning curve when discussing medical intervention with her parents.

It was quite the case.

So pediatric patient with conversion disorder. What is conversion disorder? It's a disorder that has a physical manifestation without an etiological cause.

Whaaaat? I know, I was like that too when I read it. But let me describe an example.

A girl falls off the horse, her leg is paralyzed. A truly paralyzed leg would show signs of paralysis somewhere. Her brain, a nerve in her leg, spinal cord. Somewhere.

BUT if there is no sign, then it could mean that the trauma was so severe, she is experincing paralysis in her leg - despite there being actual paralysis. IT’s tricky because to her , her leg is paralyzed but to every test… its fine.

Soooo, nothing was wrong with my patients legs. It was her swallowing mechanism. It wasn’t working. She would not, could swallow. That’s a major barrier to eating! She wasn’t getting any essential nutrients - no carbs, no fats, no protein, no vits and mins for a great length of time before she was brought to the pediatric Mental Health Unit.

But there was no cause of that happening. Well no physical cause I should say. The psychiatric departments social workers were looking into things.

In reading her report it was described as having conversion disorder and treatment included many different things, one of which was making sure she got enough nutrition- so hello, dietitian! And hello an immediate interest in mental health and nutrition forever more.

Food Alone Isn’t Going To Help

But it wasn’t JUST me who was working with her. There was an entire health care team getting this kiddo back to healthy , and that’s just how I want everyone to view nutrition.

Nutrition alone isn’t going to cure all -prevent all -treat all. You have to take a more wholesome or holistic approach. This is why I ask my clients about their stress, their sleep, their job, their support at home… all of these things make an impact on someone's health status.

When we fortify our kitchen with nutrient rich food, we are that much closer to finishing the healthy lifestyle puzzle. I definitely want to help more people do that.

Nutrition psychiatrist and other doctors want to help people do that too - which is why there is a whole section of nutrition dedicated to mental health. I am only skimming the surface here by writing this blog post and sharing these 12 foods to boost your mental health.

These 12 foods provide a variety of micronutrients.

There are 12 key micronutrients identified in managing depression and anxiety:

  • Folate

  • Iron

  • Omega-3 fatty acids

  • Magnesium

  • Potassium

  • Selenium

  • Thiamine

  • Vitamin A

  • Vitamin B6

  • Vitamin B12

  • Vitamin C

  • Zinc.

Lol, okay so you might look at that sit and think- well, that's a lot, is that all of them?

But no! It’s not and actually I'm surprised Vitamin D didn’t make it to the list since we know there is a strong connection between Vitamin D status and SADD - Seasonal Affective Depressive Disorder….I’ll have to dig into that more! There are others that didn’t make the list like a whole handful of B vitamins, Vitamin E, K and several other minerals.

So that said, those key nutrients I listed above are what scientists in this field are looking for

In foods. Because we get these nutrients by eating food.

The foods richest in these?

There are many and some of them were typed up in that article in the WSJ.

Here is a list of nutrient rich foods for Mental Health

  • Beans

  • Fermented foods

  • Fruits

  • Leafy Greens

  • Legumes

  • Meats

  • Nuts & Drupes

  • Oils

  • Seafood

  • Seeds

  • Spices

  • Whole grains

Okay- but which types of foods within those categories?

The wall street journal article list reads:

  • Small red beans

  • Kimchi

  • Pickles

  • Berries

  • Avocados

  • Spinach

  • Kale

  • Lentils

  • Grass-fed beef

  • Organ meats

  • Walnuts

  • Cashews

  • Extra virgin olive oil

  • Fish oil

  • Sunflower Seeds

  • Chia Seeds

  • Ginger

  • Turmeric

  • Quinoa

  • Farro

  • Wild Rice

Now that’s a food list!

Interesting thing to note here: while the ketogenic diet is wildly popular, as you can see by this list there are a ton of carbohydrate rich foods that are renowned for being high in mental health boosting nutrients, soooo just another reason to not follow a true ketogenic diet.

Also I hope no one looks at this list of food and scoffs because we shouldn't be following random lists on the internet. While that second part is true, the reason why we eat is to get nutrients right (have I said that enough, lol). There is legitimate research being done on this very topic.

I'm very passionate about it and how much I believe it can help support my clients- especially my fitness nutrition clients- reach their goals.

My goal in life as a Registered Dietitian is to take the nutrition science and communicate it in a way that's more digestible :).

I also like to make stuff on Canva.com because being creative makes me happy! I always make sure that what I create is positive though, like this You're Beautiful the Way You are HIIT Workout pin I made (because I was annoyed of the "Get a Bubble Butt Workout" pins).

So how can you take this list and apply it to your own life?

Start Slow

I recommend incorporating these foods as naturally as possible. Look at what you eat- can you make 1 simple swap? So instead of always buying tuna when you are int he canned section of the store, maybe grab some oysters.

When I was a college student I needed to incorporate something other than tuna in my life and that's how I discovered smoked oysters. Only back then I didn't know they were so important for mental health!

The point here is, you do not need to overhaul your pantry or fridge at once and only eat these foods. That’s not how this works optimally.

One Change at a Time

Moresore, instead of always having a potato at dinner , jazz up your dinner meal with some wild rice and toasted almonds.

Or throw in some nutrient rich berries and avocado into a smoothie bowl & top it with omega-3 rich nuts!

Find Recipes

There are plenty of recipes out there with these foods, I have some easy 5 ingredient meal ideas for meal prep that include some of these foods.

Check out these blog posts for some meal prep ideas that have plenty of mental health boosting foods :)!

Keep Following Mind on Nutrition Blog & @monicasalafia.rd on IG!

This dietitian just bought herself an Instant Pot so I am going to be experimenting with more foods- especially the grains that take a while to cook so be on the lookout for more recipes on the Mind on Nutrition Blog!

Also, full disclosure! Know that if you do want to buy an Instant pot and you click on that link or this image of the very Instant Pot that I bought (which was $130 at William Sonoma, so this is $30 fewer!), I get commission at no extra cost to you.

Additionally, if you ever feel like you are in need of looking at your diet to see what vitamins or minerals you may not be getting enough of - especially these ones above- let’s get you on a Nutrition Coaching Program and we can work together and set goals on how to incorporate more of these foods into your diet and how to assess if your mental health is improving :)!

Email- mindonnutrition@gmail.com

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