You Are What You Eat: Nourishment For The Mind

Sandra, a food bank client recalls, “As a child, I was embarrassed going to school. My lunch was often just a peanut butter sandwich. No jelly or anything else. I was hungry and distracted. On the way home, I felt anxious. I didn’t know if there would be anything to eat for dinner. Mashed potatoes and peas might be all we had.”

You know the saying, “You are what you eat?” From the point of view of nutritional psychiatry, it’s kind of true. As a food bank, food and nutrition are essential ingredients of our mission, so in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month it felt important to shed light on the connections between the foods we eat, their effects on the brain, and what happens when food insecurity disrupts the balance.

“Proper nutrition plays a crucial role in mental health as the nutrients we consume directly affect brain function and mood regulation, says Sarah Cohen, Nutritional Education Coordinator at the Community Food Bank. Consuming nutrient-rich foods like nuts, fruits, legumes, seafood and lean red meats protects the brain from stress, promotes healthy function and improves mood. By contrast, a diet high in processed foods, saturated fat and refined sugars–like some cereals, potato chips, and fried foods–causes oxidative stress,  inflammation, and worsens symptoms of depression and mood disorders.

Good Food, Good Mood

Serotonin, that chemical you might associate with happiness, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. It also plays an important role in regulating sleep, appetite, mood, and pain. Without the proper nutrients to support the beneficial bacteria in our gut, namely foods high in fiber like leafy greens, serotonin production is compromised along with the functions it supports.

Emergency food boxes at the Community Food Bank are filled with non-perishable food staples like beans, rice, oats, and pasta that meet the nutrient requirements for good health. We also provide a range of fresh items like apples, eggs, meat, milk, bread, and more. These offerings are meant to promote good health and help prevent or manage physical illnesses like diabetes or high cholesterol. The gut-brain connection reminds us that what we eat directly impacts our mood. For those relying on the Food Bank, each nutritious provision is a step towards brighter days.

Immune System

Inflammation, a natural defense mechanism of the immune system, can be triggered by certain foods high in saturated fat, sugar, and unrecognized food additives, potentially leading to health issues. Recent studies indicate a link between increased inflammation from consuming ultra-processed foods and cognitive decline, affecting brain areas like the hippocampus and amygdala, which regulate stress and the fight-or-flight response. While past research primarily focused on the physical health consequences of inflammation, emerging evidence suggests its significant impact on mental health, with conditions like diabetes also affecting brain structures crucial for mental well-being.

The Nervous System

The nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves and facilitates communication throughout the body. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to adapt to environmental and internal changes. A healthy diet that includes omega-3 fatty acids, found in food like fatty fish, walnuts and flaxseeds, is crucial for maintaining a healthy nervous system. A poorly functioning nervous system is associated with anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, among others.

In Arizona, 1 in 8 people and 1 in 5 children face hunger. The stress and anxiety that accompanies not knowing where your next meal is going to come from compounds the negative effects of inadequate nutrition. For food banks, the relationship between nutrition and mental health underscores the vital importance of access to nutritious food for overall well-being. The foods we consume directly impact brain function, mood regulation, and even the health of our nervous system. By recognizing the profound effects of nutrition on mental health and striving to provide nutritious options to those in need, we take steps toward ensuring brighter, healthier futures for all.