• Julia Tannenbaum

The Power of Food on Mental Health

Updated: Jul 12

When I was treated for anorexia, I was told by my healthcare team again and again of the impact food has on mood. Food is fuel. Food is medicine. Food is life. While at the time this went in one ear and out the other, in retrospect, it makes sense that eating well correlates with emotional and mental wellbeing. When I was significantly restricting calories, my depression was noticeably worse. Research has found a strong link between overeating and depression too.

In recovery, despite eating enough food most of the time, I continued to experience low moods and bouts of depression on a semi-frequent basis. I was also struggling with anxiety and would often find myself panicked to the point where I was unable to breathe. In fact, it wasn’t until three months ago, when I made a fairly drastic change to the types of food I was eating, that I noticed an immense improvement in my depression and anxiety. For the first time in eight years, I felt sustained happiness and joy. I could regulate my emotions easier, and that helped keep my anxiety under control. I was sleeping better too; no longer tossing and turning for hours, unable to shut off my frenzied mind. Over the next month, I was able to ween off all my prescription medications, which I’d relied on since I was fourteen.

So, what were these dietary changes I made that resulted in a healthier, happier me? Well, it all started when I made the decision to transition from a vegetarian to a vegan lifestyle after learning of the horrors of the dairy and egg industries. After only a couple of weeks of eating completely plant-based, I noticed my asthma and allergies were better, I had more energy, and my shoulder pain (which I’d suffered from for years and attributed to stress) wasn’t as intense. The decrease of these physical ailments was having a positive impact on my mood too.

The phrase “food is medicine” suddenly made all the sense in the world. I started to wonder what more I could do to improve my physical and mental health. It didn’t take long on the internet to discover an approach to eating called the whole food plant-based (WFPB) diet. WFPB eating focuses on whole, unrefined, minimally processed plant foods and has been scientifically proven to prevent, control, and even reverse chronic diseases, in addition to bettering overall health and wellness.

There’s an abundance of research on the physical health benefits of a WFPB diet. Many I’ve been fortunate enough to experience myself, including the aforementioned increase in energy, decrease in joint pain, and complete elimination of asthma and allergies (goodbye, inhaler and Zyrtec!), as well as clearer skin, smoother digestion, and better endurance for sports. Yet, like many things in our society, the mental health aspect of the WFPB diet is both overlooked and under-discussed.

I’m currently reading the book How Not to Die by plant-based physician Michael Greger. It’s an excellent book that I’d recommend everyone check out, however of the fifteen chronic health conditions Dr. Greger examines, only one directly relates to mental health. As someone who’s survived three mental illnesses, I felt an overwhelming need to explore the research that’s been done on the link between plant-based eating and mental health so those who are struggling can, as I have, see for themselves the power food has on the mind.

The link between inflammation and depression kept coming up in my research. I first read about it in How Not to Die, where Dr. Greger states, “Evidence suggests that people who are depressed have raised inflammatory markers . . . and inflammatory illnesses are associated with greater rates of major depression.” According to Forks Over Knives, an organization dedicated to plant-based eating, animal-based products contain a pro-inflammatory compound, arachidonic acid, that can negatively impact mental health and lead to an increased risk of depression and suicide. The top five sources of arachidonic acid are chicken, eggs, beef, pork, and fish.

Another reason why animal-based foods cause inflammation is that they usually contain high amounts of saturated fats. According to Dr. Greger, in the United States, the top sources of saturated fats are cheese, dairy-rich desserts like ice cream, chicken, pork, and hamburgers. In addition to increasing inflammation, saturated fats reduce blood flow, which can lead to feelings of fatigue, drowsiness, and, ultimately, depression.

It makes sense that when you feel physically unwell, your mental health suffers. Common side effects of poor physical health that result in poor mental health are low energy, low motivation, difficulty sleeping, chronic pain, and weight problems, to name a few. If there was a relatively simple way to treat and even reverse these ailments, thus bettering your mental and emotional wellbeing, that isn’t medication-dependent, wouldn’t you want to know about it?

It turns out that not only is eating animal-based products detrimental to mental health; eating plant-based has been scientifically proven to improve mental health. Higher consumption of vegetables may cut the odds of developing depression by as much as 62%, according to Greger, because fruits and veggies present “a non-invasive, natural, and inexpensive therapeutic means to support a healthy brain.” Fruits and vegetables are also rich in antioxidants, which protect against free radicals: uncharged molecules that play a role in the development of psychiatric disorders. It makes sense then, that studies are continually concluding the higher the consumption of fruits and vegetables, the lower the risk of depression, anxiety and mood disorders, and other mental health conditions.

Furthermore, whole food plant-based diets are typically high in carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are essential for the production of serotonin: a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, happiness, and anxiety. Carbs also help to control stress, provide us with energy for both the brain and the body, and create gut bacteria, which is associated with higher moods and lower risk for mental health disorders.

I don’t want to overlook the emotional upsides of eating a diet that’s kinder towards animals and the planet either. In my short time of being vegan, I’ve felt a connection with animals and nature that I previously lacked. I’ve also felt a greater sense of peace and a comfort in knowing that my dietary choices fully align with my morals.

There’s no such thing as a “perfect diet,” however that shouldn’t prevent us from choosing foods that benefit our bodies and minds. After years of struggling with a multitude of physical ailments and mental health issues, it’s been both incredible and surreal to find an approach to eating that alleviates most of my previous discomforts and enables me to lead the active and fulfilling life I’ve always dreamed of but never thought possible. A simple dietary change could be all it takes for you as well to feel your very best.

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