Eat Right to Improve Your Mental Health

Story by Andrea T. Lindsey, MS, Defense Department Human Performance Resource Center

The foods you eat play a key role in how you feel, think and perform, so it’s important to eat a balanced diet with a variety of healthy carbohydrates, fats and protein.

Photo: Eating healthy is all about getting the balance right in your daily diet. (National Cancer Institute file photo/Released)

Eating healthy is all about getting the balance right in your daily diet. (National Cancer Institute file photo/Released)

Different foods affect your brain – and, as a result, your behavior – differently. For example, your brain relies on chemicals called “neurotransmitters” for proper functioning. Not eating enough complex carbohydrates (such as those in whole grains and fruits) and healthy fats (such as the omega-3 fatty acids in salmon or nuts) can trigger imbalances in the production or activity of some neurotransmitters, which can contribute to mood swings, irritability and food cravings. And if you don’t eat enough protein-containing foods, your diet will lack the building blocks for the neurotransmitters that play roles in memory formation and alertness.

Vitamins and minerals are important for proper brain function and behavioral health too. For example, the B vitamins help support your brain’s energy levels, blood flow and nerve function, and vitamin D plays many roles in behavioral health. Without these key nutrients, you can experience fatigue, irritability and/or depression.

Please note that there is very little scientific research to support taking large amounts of vitamin or mineral supplements for optimal behavioral health. That’s because foods contain many components that work together in a synergistic fashion. Taking isolated single compounds in dietary supplements rarely has the same beneficial effect as eating the whole food. The Operation Supplement Safety resource “Nutrition: Fueled for Fitness” provides more information on this subject.

Nutrition and behavioral scientists are looking closely at the links between diet and behavioral health, but much remains to be learned. There is no single, definitive guide that addresses how to achieve optimal behavioral health through nutrition, but here are a few resources that you might find helpful:

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Eat Right to Improve Your Mental Health