How can nutrition improve mental and emotional health by Mariana de Oliveira Dias
Mariana de Oliveira Dias is a certified wellness consultant and nutrition coach, certified yoga instructor and raw vegan chef. In 2014 she opened Macao’s first cold-pressed juicery, Sattva Juicery and Kitchen, and more recently her consultancy, MOD – Integrated Wellness and Consulting services Limited, which aims to provide wellness services to Macao’s community through events, workshops and nutrition.
In her “Wellness for All” column, Mariana will be answering questions from our readers, bringing her wellness knowledge to our community, making health and happiness part of our everyday thinking.
Dear Mariana, how can nutrition improve mental and emotional health?
I believe that understanding what we eat is particularly important not only during the pandemic, but in all stages of life.
While it’s tempting to reach for cookies, crisps and other comfort food in times of stress and uncertainty, a diet heavy in refined carbohydrates and saturated fats will not do you any favours.
In fact, your diet has the potential to be your best ally – it can help regulate your mood, boost the immune system, improve organ function, and help you sleep – or your No. 1 enemy.
My personal philosophy about nutrition’s impact on our wellbeing developed while facing digestive issues, anxiety, painful PMS and mood changes a long time ago. These experiences taught me a lot about self-care and resilience, but mostly about the importance of health habits and routines, including my diet. At the time, I knew little about nutrition, but one thing I understood: When everything else in our lives feels out of control, the one thing we can control is what we buy at the grocery store.
Interestly enough, research shows that our mental wellbeing begins within the gastrointestinal tract, since more than 90 per cent of serotonin – the happy chemical that stabilises your mood, aids with sleep, helps your body digest food and impacts your motor skills – is produced by gut microbes during digestion.
Eating nutrient-dense, complex foods that are high in fibre can boost healthy gut bacterias, leading to an uptick in serotonin. For a strong digestive system, start incorporating fermented foods (containing probiotics) into your diet. These powerful little guys will help ease anxiety, stress, and depression.
Try adding kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and raw vegan living coconut yogurt. If you are comfortable consuming dairy, invest in yogurt with live active cultures (such Greek yogurt). Within a few weeks, or possibly even days, you will see and feel a difference.
On the other hand, if you are consuming foods high in saturated fats, refined sugars, carbohydrates and chemicals, you will likely see serotonin levels plummet. High fat diets, in particular, can lead to depression, anxiety and even trouble sleeping.
What you eat also impacts the core functions of your brain. Our brain works hard 24/7 taking care of our thoughts, movements, breathing, heartbeat, senses, reactions – even while we’re asleep. And to complete all that hard work, it requires a constant supply of sustenance.
When you eat nutritious – and, ideally, organic – plant-based foods filled with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, you are ensuring that your brain is fuelled for top performance. You will also protect it from oxidative stress (an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body) and free radicals (unstable atoms that can damage cells and lead to illness). That’s important, because free radicals could negatively impair cognition and aggravate mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
To best support your brain function, mood and psychological health, I’d say that a Mediterranean diet – which focuses on fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, fish, olive oil, lean meat, dairy, and red wine – is a good place to start. Taking it a step further, a plant-based, or vegan diet chock full of whole foods can also work wonders for your mental health. That’s thanks to certain nutrients found in plant-based foods (such as Omega 3, fibre and vitamin D), which have been proven to elevate your mood, reduce stress, and promote a sense of well-being.
It’s been nearly 10 years since I adopted a plant-based diet and lifestyle, and I have never looked back. I am still amazed by the power of plants for both prevention and healing. We all have the power to use nutrition as the catalyst to become more in tune, connected, and aware of how our diets impact our mental health.
Cultivating healthy eating habits is one of the most important skills you can learn to improve your overall wellbeing. My advice is to listen to your body – our bodies guide us, if we can only just take the time to reconnect with ourselves.
Making small and realistic changes to your diet and lifestyle can lead to big changes. And as you start adapting to these changes, healthy habits will become second nature.
In love & light
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