TIME Mental Health/Psychology

8 Ways Eating Can Improve Your Mental Health

healthiest foods, health food, diet, nutrition, time.com stock, blueberries, blueberry, fruits
Danny Kim for TIME

Ditch the fast food

Although French fries and ice cream often make it on the list of grub to dig into when we’re down, true comfort food comes from a healthier crowd. What you eat actually plays an important role in how you feel mentally; Spanish researchers who followed 15,000 young adults over the course of nine years found that those who ate more nuts, fruit, vegetables and fish had a 30 percent lower incidence of depression than those who gorged on sweets or processed foods. That’s not all. The UK-based Mental Health Foundation reports that fewer than half of patients who suffer from mental health problems eat fresh fruit and vegetables. Nearly two-thirds of those free from daily mental health problems eat fresh produce regularly.

Ensuring your diet is full of adequate amounts of healthy nutrients can enhance your mental clarity, provide a more balanced mood, and protect your mind from early mental decline. Discover all the ways that eating better can help improve your mental health.

1. You’ll save money

Think about all that cash you blow on soda, grabbing takeout at restaurants, picking out a snack every couple of hours and ordering dessert after every meal. But it’s not just food you’ll save money on when you start to eat better. Those who clock in at a healthy weight spend an astounding 42 percent less cash on medical bills and health expenses than their overweight peers, according to a Health Affairs report. And get this: you’ll not only be less stressed financially, but a study published in The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences says that financial strain is a strong risk factor for and predictor of worsening mental health.

Eat This, Not That!: The 20 Ultimate Tips for Finally Understanding Nutritional Labels

2. Fueling up properly means you won’t get hangry as much

Whether you’re constantly muttering under your breath about coworkers’ minute errors or snapping at drivers during rush hour, you go about life with a short fuse. Rather than looking to poor anger management or mood disorders, look to your rumbling stomach. You could actually be hangry! One of the reasons why you’re always hungry, and thus, always hangry, is perhaps because of an inefficient diet that subsists on empty carbs. This food burns up in your body quickly, which causes your body to crave substance more quickly.

When you deprive yourself of food while your body screams at you to eat, your body goes into a state of distress. The result is low dopamine levels, which means less control over your emotions and more irritability, anxiety, mental confusion and slowness in thought. If you choose to fuel up with slow-burning sources of energy like complex carbs, protein, and healthy fats, you’ll start to see your anger subside in no time.

3. Combatting nutritional deficiencies can improve your mood

Studies show that a number of nutrients are associated with brain health, and deficiencies of these nutrients have countlessly been linked to depression. It should be no surprise that many of these micronutrients are abundant in “healthy” foods and M.I.A. in junk foods. Some of which include omega-3s (salmon, flax and chia seeds, walnuts), folate (asparagus, chickpeas, lentils), vitamin B12 (tuna, shrimp, milk), choline (egg yolks, broccoli, brussels sprouts), magnesium (spinach, yogurt, black beans), vitamin D (fatty fish, eggs). Always check with your doctor before going off any anti-depressants, but you may want to get blood work done to see if the reason your mood has tanked is because you’re experiencing some nutritional deficiencies.

4. Eating antioxidants can help you feel more optimistic about the future

Whether you’re a recent college grad or just attended your last child’s college graduation, the future can certainly seem daunting at times—and that can cause some serious anxiety. That’s even more so the case if you’re not eating enough carrots. Why? A study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that individuals with higher levels of carotenoids (a type of antioxidant) tended to be more optimistic about the future, an indicator of positive health. Unless you’re always ordering sweet potato fries when you eat out, you’re likely missing out on these beneficial antioxidants. On the other hand, a healthy diet easily incorporates many of its top sources: carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and kale.

Eat This, Not That!: 25 Easy Ways to Lose 10 Pounds

5. Chemicals in fast food block mood-boosting nutrient absorption

Phthalates are a group of endocrine-disrupting chemical toxins that, like BPA, are used in plastic food and beverage wrappers notorious in fast food places. But those toxins don’t just stay on the wrappers. A study recently made headlines that connected people who ate fast food with dose-dependent higher levels of phthalate metabolites than infrequent eaters. And that’s bad news for all-day-breakfast lovers, since a separate study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that exposure to BPA and phthalates may reduce adults’ vitamin D levels—a vitamin whose low levels in the blood have been connected to mental decline in older adults and chronic migraines in young people. Bottom line: lay off the fast food and not only will the scale tip in your favor, but you may also have more mental clarity,

6. You’ll kick the junky foods that exacerbate stress

Foods that worsen stress are also the ones connected to weight gain. Worst of all, they’re often our go-to snacks when we’re feeling anxious (think: chips and ice cream), which just throws our bodies into a worsened cycle of stress. On the other hand, numerous options have been scientifically proven to alter both your brain chemistry and hormones to help your body deal with stress more easily. And you guessed it: they’re all good-for-you foods.

7. Your medicine may work better

A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that supplementing your diet with certain nutrients found in healthy foods—omega-3 fatty acids, folate, and vitamin D—can be effective in boosting the positive effects of antidepressant medication.

8. You’ll sleep better

When you eat a poor diet centered on foods that digest quickly and leave you hungry often, you can disrupt your sleep cycle by making yourself hungry in the middle of the night. When you improve your diet and lose weight, you’ll likely be able to put sleeping problems such as sleep apnea to bed.

(Gifts: The 100 Most Influential Images of All Time)

You’ll also improve your mental health. Countless studies have found that sleep problems often precede mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders and depression. In a study of 1,000 adults, researchers found that those who reported a history of insomnia during an interview were four times as likely to develop major depression by the time of a second interview three years later.

This article originally appeared on Eat This, Not That!

Tap to read full story

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com


YOU BROKE TIME.COM!

Dear TIME Reader,

As a regular visitor to TIME.com, we are sure you enjoy all the great journalism created by our editors and reporters. Great journalism has great value, and it costs money to make it. One of the main ways we cover our costs is through advertising.

The use of software that blocks ads limits our ability to provide you with the journalism you enjoy. Consider turning your Ad Blocker off so that we can continue to provide the world class journalism you have become accustomed to.

The TIME Team