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Brain Food: Eating for Your Mental Health

Author’s Note: Although I have extensive experience in eating for the purpose of improving my own personal health, I am neither a physician nor a certified dietician. I do not recommend making major dietary changes without consulting your personal physician. Although I have taken care to research the information included here, every individual is unique, and you should follow the advice of your healthcare team.

Recently, a friend of mine had a complete emotional meltdown over burnt cookies. She mentioned the ordeal in an online support group where we both belong, and added the hashtag “first world problems.” I disagreed with her assessment. Yes, the meltdown was related to a specifically modern-day issue, but my friend was dealing with a lot of emotionally difficult stuff. She had said goodbye to her dog that week. Like the rest of our country, she was dealing with heightened emotions surrounding a pandemic and divisive national politics. Also, my friend is chronically ill, and she used what little energy she had left on this particular bad day to bake the last of her prepackaged cookie dough. She did it because her brain was craving comfort food, and ultimately, she was unable to enjoy that comfort. After she shared her distress with our support group, I checked in with her and reminded her that in times of distress, our brains do in fact need extra fat. Her meltdown was understandable.

However, the source of my friend’s meltdown could also be the source of an extra 20 or 40 pounds for the average stressed-out American. Our anxious, depressed brains are screaming for food. How can we make sure our brains have the necessary nutrients and still maintain a healthy weight?

Healthy Fats

Yes, your brain needs fat. However, your body will do a better job processing healthy, plant-based fats than other forms of fat. Avocados have come into vogue as a health food, and if you have access to them, eating one or two a week is a great idea. Olives and olive oil are other great sources of healthy fat. Tree nuts in moderation are another fantastic alternative. If you consume milk products, choosing the full-fat option can be a good idea, as long as you limit the number of full-fat servings you enjoy daily.

Healthy Sugar

Your body will likely also begin shouting for additional sugar when you are experiencing emotional distress. Although carbs have gotten a bad rap in diet circles for the past couple decades, complex carbohydrates, especially minimally processed plant-based ones, come along with a number of important nutrients. Additionally, fruit and cooked vegetables are easy to digest, which makes them ideal during times when you and your digestive system are over stressed. The key to getting healthy plant-based carbs is making sure your carbs come with fiber and protein. Even boiled potatoes (best eaten with skins and olive oil instead of butter) contain some protein and fiber.

Dietary science is complex, and scientists are still working to learn how human bodies interact with the food we consume. However, a huge amount of research conducted worldwide on the consumption of fruits and vegetables indicates that people who eat them regularly are healthier than those who don’t. Furthermore, science is still identifying micronutrients found in produce. The more (especially local) produce you consume, the better you are likely to feel—both emotionally and physically.

Healthy Color

You’ve likely heard the merits of eating colorful food. Your brain especially appreciates brightly colored plant-based food because it tends to be full of antioxidants. Antioxidants are chemicals found naturally in certain foods that help eliminate free-radicals (toxins that can cause myriad health issues). While researchers are still working to understand exactly how, why and to what extent antioxidants benefit the human body, general consensus holds that consuming antioxidants helps with brain function as well as total-body wellness. Some of the best plant-based sources of antioxidants include

  • Blueberries

  • Pecans (also a great source of healthy fat)

  • Pomegranates

  • Spinach

  • Beets

  • Raspberries

  • Oranges

  • Kale

You can rely on your brain to send signals of distress in troubling times. These signals include your cravings for comfort food. The best course of action is to make sure your brain gets what it truly needs. If possible, consume some healthy fat when you start to crave junk food. Instead of sitting down to eat the entire box of shortbread cookies, have a single cookie with pecans in it. Then make sure your next meal includes some olive oil, avocado, or other healthy fats. If you’re craving both fat and sugar, turn to minimally processed, plant-based sweets such as sweet potatoes, carrots, beets or dark-colored berries. Most important, indulge those cravings with only a serving or two of fats and carbs at once. Otherwise you run the risk of over-indulging in unhealthy fats and sugars when you eventually give in.

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