Your Brain on Food: Understanding How Your Diet Affects Mood and Brain Function
If we’re all being honest here, eating healthy is hard when you’re in college. First off, its more expensive than processed and boxed foods. Its more work, you actually have to cook fresh foods, like planning and cutting and prepping everything and then turning on the oven and using it, not to mention how much extra time that takes compared to throwing a TV dinner in the microwave. Or if you’re like me you’re constantly on the go so it’s rare you have time to sit down and eat a full meal, your snacking in between classes and other activities. The worst part is we don’t think about how much our lazy or rushed eating habits affect our mood and brain function, and when you’re a student your brain needs to be functioning at full capacity.
It’s simple as Harvard Health puts it, your brain is like your car, it runs the best when you’re pumping in premium fuel. As soon as you start filling your tank with lower grade fuel chalked full of fillers and preservatives your car just simply doesn’t run as well. Similarly, when you are eating whole unprocessed grains, fruits and vegetables or foods that are high in vitamins and minerals your mood is better and your body can run easier but if you’re constantly ingesting processed foods with refined sugars it can take a toll on your brains ability to run cleanly.
The nutritional value in whatever you are eating is absorbed by healthy bacteria normally present in your intestinal tract, also in your intestinal tract are millions of nerve endings that release a neurotransmitter called serotonin that helps to regulate sleep, appetite, mood and can help inhibit pain. The bacteria, like any living organism, flourish on fresh healthy and unprocessed foods, if the bacteria are receiving healthy amounts of vitamins the nerve endings will be more active and release more serotonin more frequently which often improves mood and lowers the risk of depression. When the bacteria in your gut are happy! Studies have shown that people who follow traditional Mediterranean diets or Japanese type diets (diets that contain modest amounts of lean meat, are high in fresh vegetables, nuts, fish and healthy oils, and low in dairy) compared to a typical western diet that is high in processed grains and refined sugars have a 25-35% lower risk of suffering from mood disorders like depression.
That being said, it would be great if we could all just drop our bad eating habits and start fresh on a happy brain diet but that is unrealistic for majority of people, not just college students.
One way to gradually work up to a happy brain diet is by slowly cutting out foods or groups of food that can poorly effect our bodies. Harvard suggests cutting out dairy, or going grain free, it’s also always good to cut down on your sugar intake.
Another way to look at it is immediate feeling versus the long term feeling. Yeah, it will feel great to eat that chocolate bar or bag of chips right now and you’ll likely experience a short term emotional lift but thinking more long term, even that night or the next day for example it won’t feel great anymore. Whereas eating an apple or some carrots is more sustainable and will give you more energy and improve your mood over a longer period of time.
Maybe cutting things from your diet just isn’t in the cards for you, and that’s okay! Try adding nutritious foods to your already existing diet. For example, add salmon to your shopping list, or foods that are high in probiotics like yogurt. Yogurt is the best way to get probiotics next to taking a probiotic supplement, similar to a daily vitamin. Berries like blueberries are great for mood improvement and can help prevent cancer. Nuts are another option, especially cashews and work when you find yourself eating on the go. Chances are if you begin to incorporate these foods in you”ll begin to favor them and eat less of the unhealthy foods.
Next time you’re at the store before you pick something off the shelf think to yourself “would my brain like that?”
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