Nutrition & Fitness for Mental Health

Editor Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Updated On
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Doctors have known for centuries that physical health affects mental health. There is even a Latin motto expressing this notion: “mente sana en cuerpo sano” (a healthy mind in a healthy body). In recent decades, medical researchers have tried to pin down this general principle to discover the ways in which diet and nutrition can have specific positive and negative effects on health. This research enables mental health professionals to work with you to build a lifestyle that promotes mental health.

Common Sense

As a matter of basic common sense, you know you feel better on a day in which you have gotten a good night’s sleep, eaten a wholesome breakfast, and go out for a walk in nice sunny weather compared to a day in which you sit on a couch watching TV and eating junk food. What scientific researchers can add to common sense are the specific details related to what sorts of activities and nutritional habits can have positive effects. While any healthy lifestyle changes may improve your mood temporarily, research has uncovered many long-term lifestyle modifications that can serve as part of a comprehensive mental health program.

Nutritional Psychiatry

One of the more exciting new developments in the field of mental health is the study of nutritional psychiatry, a research area that focuses on how diet affects many diverse conditions, including attention deficit disorder, depression, age-related mental decline, and anxiety. Other studies suggest that early childhood and maternal diet may affect long-term mental health outcomes.

Intestinal Microbiome

Serotonin, a neurotransmitter important to mental health, is actually produced in your gastrointestinal tract. Researchers are investigating how your microbiome, the “good” bacteria present in your digestive system, may affect the production of serotonin. Many things can disrupt this microbiome of good bacteria, including the use of antibiotics and a high-fat and high-sugar diet. There is some evidence that probiotics and fermented foods may help restore your gastrointestinal microbiome.

Foods to Avoid

One major area of research has been focused on the effect of the low-quality “Western diet” on mental health. This diet, often typical in North America, consists of processed foods, including those high in sugar and saturated fats. Typical elements of this diet are sugary beverages, red and processed meats, fried foods, and sweet and salty snack foods.

Increasingly, this diet appears to be linked to negative mental health outcomes, especially depression. A recent study revives concerns that a diet high in sugar and fast food may correlate with the prevalence of diagnosed attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Other research is investigating the possibility that there may be dietary factors impacting schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Mind

Although there is no one “superfood” that will cure mental health conditions or serve as a substitute for professional care, good nutrition may reduce mental health symptoms as well as improve your overall health. Some of the important elements of such a diet are:

Lean proteins

Choose grilled, roasted, or stir-fried lean cuts of poultry and fish rather than red or processed meats or deep-fried foods. Vegetarian protein options are often lower in fat than meat.

Fresh fruits and vegetables

A wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables will provide a variety of micro-nutrients. Rather than fruit juice, choose whole fruits and salads with low-fat dressings. Add steamed or stir-fried vegetables to any meal or dish for a nutrition boost. Load up on nutrient-dense low-calorie green vegetables such as broccoli, kale, and spinach.

Brightly colored fruits and vegetables such as carrots, berries, yams, beets, and pomegranates are rich in phytochemicals, important micro-nutrients. Another group of phytochemicals called flavonoids can be found in citrus fruits, onions, apples, tea, and coffee.

Nuts and legumes

Although nuts contain fat, they are good fats, and both nuts and legumes also contain protein, fiber, and important vitamins. Adding beans or raw almonds to a salad can enhance protein content with no unhealthy saturated fats.

What is most important in this food group is choosing foods that are low in fat and salt and minimally processed. Hummus, raw or roasted nuts, or plain kidney beans are good choices, but sugar-laden baked beans, heavily salted nuts with added oils or fats, or highly processed peanut butter with added sugar and trans fats are not good for your health.

Eggs and dairy

Eggs and dairy are good sources of protein and essential vitamins. Although low-fat dairy products consumed in moderation can add lean protein to your diet, people who are lactose-intolerant may prefer plant-based substitutes such as soy or almond milk or tofu. Hard-boiled eggs are convenient low-calorie sources of protein, but experts advise to limit egg dishes with excessive added salt and fats, such as breakfast sandwiches.

Whole grains

Foods that are sugary and fatty, such as pastries, and foods full of empty calories, such as white bread, french fries, and pretzels, may have a negative effect on your health if consumed in excess. Whole grains such as brown rice, whole-wheat bread, and quinoa, on the other hand, add fiber and important vitamins to your diet.

Fermented foods and probiotics

Some research suggests that probiotics and fermented foods may have a positive effect on mental health by helping restore or balance gastrointestinal bacteria. Some good choices include low-fat yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir.

Micro-nutrients

Vitamins and minerals are among the micro-nutrients that may affect mental health. Inadequate levels of zinc, iron, and B vitamins may be correlated with depression. Some studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids may have a positive effect on cognitive functioning. Before taking any supplements, even those sold over the counter, you should consult your health care provider.

Physical and Mental Fitness

The evidence for the positive effect of exercise on physical health is overwhelming. The numerous benefits of regular exercise include immediate effects such as weight reduction, more energy, and better sleep. Regular exercise also reduces the risk of many diseases and chronic conditions.

Recent research also looks at how exercise affects your brain. In addition to physical benefits, fitness promotes mental health as well. An active lifestyle is correlated with people having more energy, improved moods, and lower rates of conditions such as depression.

The ways in which exercise reduces rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, and other physical problems are well-understood and may account for some of the mood benefits. This may be because you feel better emotionally when your body is in good shape and free of pain.

Your Brain on Exercise

Epidemiological studies show that people who exercise regularly have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Regular exercisers also self-report having better moods and fewer mental health issues. Exercise has even proven effective as part of a treatment program for major depressive disorder.

How Exercise Affects Your Brain

There are three major mechanisms behind the correlation between exercise and mental health. First, exercise increases the flow of blood and thus oxygen to your brain, enabling your brain to function better. Second, exercise generates natural endorphins, chemicals that have a positive effect on your mood. Third, exercise develops and increases the size of certain areas of your brain, particularly the hippocampus.

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

Any exercise is better than none. If you start out completely sedentary, even adding a brief walk around the block to your daily routine will have some health benefits. For optimal physical and mental fitness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a mixture of cardiovascular and strengthening exercises.

What Is Cardiovascular Exercise?

Cardiovascular, or aerobic, exercise involves a sustained movement of large muscles such as your legs, hips, and arms that causes your heart rate to rise and your lungs to take in more oxygen. Unlike anaerobic exercise, it is done at a pace you can sustain for at least 15 minutes. Typical examples of cardiovascular exercise are walking, running, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, rowing, canoeing, cycling, and swimming.

Researchers recommend a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of high-intensity cardiovascular exercise a week for optimal health. This does not mean that you should just leap out of bed one morning after years of being sedentary and run a marathon. Instead, consult your health care provider first and then gradually add exercise to your daily routine.

You might start by going for a 10-minute walk or bike ride a few days a week and then build up over two or three months to walking for 30 to 60 minutes three or four times a week. Doing a variety of exercises, such as mixing walking and biking or Nordic skiing and an elliptical trainer, is ideal as it works a wider range of muscle groups than just a single form of exercise does. What is most important is to choose activities that are enjoyable and convenient so that you will actually do them regularly.

Strengthening Exercises

Although cardiovascular exercise has the greatest effect on reducing symptoms of depression, strengthening exercises are also an important part of fitness that can prevent injuries and improve your ability to perform daily activities. Two or three weekly strength-training sessions of 20 minutes each will improve your bone density and help you manage chronic conditions such as arthritis or back problems.

Although some people enjoy going to the gym, it’s also possible to just use body weight or resistance tubing at home to build strength in your major muscle groups. Consult your health care provider before starting a strength-training program to ensure that you are exercising safely.

Putting Together a Mentally Healthy Lifestyle

Your brain is part of your body. This means that good health and fitness habits are good for your mind as well as your body. As you work with your mental health care provider, you can gradually incorporate elements of a healthy lifestyle into your program.

Two of the main elements of a healthy lifestyle are nutrition and exercise. Rather than setting yourself up for failure by trying to completely change your diet and fitness habits in a single day or week, take a gradual path to success. On your first day, you might substitute a piece of fresh fruit for a sugary snack and go for a walk around a parking lot before getting in your car. On the next day, you could eat cereal with low-fat milk rather than a breakfast sandwich and take the stairs rather than the elevator.

Once you begin making small positive changes, you may begin to feel a bit happier or more energetic, and this can help motivate you to do more and continue making more incremental changes. As you feel better, you will have the energy and motivation to make more healthy changes, which will lead to additional gradual improvements in your physical and mental health.


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