Healthy eating is not about strict dietary limitations, staying unrealistically thin, or depriving yourself of the foods you love. Rather, it’s about feeling great, having more energy, improving your health, and stabilizing your mood. If you feel overwhelmed by all the conflicting nutrition and diet advice out there, you’re not alone. It seems that for every expert who tells you a certain food is good for you, you’ll find another saying exactly the opposite. Here's a few simple tips to help you cut through the confusion and learn how to create a tasty, varied, and nutritious diet that is as good for your mind as it is for your body.
How can healthy eating improve your mood?
We all know that eating right can help you maintain a healthy weight and avoid certain health problems, but your diet can also have an effect on your mood and sense of wellbeing. Studies have linked eating a typical Western diet—filled with processed meats, packaged meals, takeout food, and sugary snacks—with higher rates of depression, stress, bipolar disorder and anxiety. Eating an unhealthy diet may even play a role in the development of mental health disorders such as ADHD or in the increased risk of suicide in young people. Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, cooking meals at home, and reducing your intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates, may help to improve mood and lower your risk for mental health issues.
What constitutes a healthy diet?
Eating a healthy diet doesn’t have to be overly complicated. While some specific foods or nutrients have been shown to have a beneficial effect on mood, it’s your overall dietary pattern that is most important. The cornerstone of a healthy diet pattern should be to replace processed food with real food whenever possible. Eating food that is as close as possible to the way nature made it can make a huge difference to the way you think, look, and feel.
Building your healthy diet
While some extreme diets may suggest otherwise, we all need a balance of protein, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals in our diets to sustain a healthy body. You need to select the healthiest options from each category.
Protein - It gives us the energy to get up and go—and keep going—while also supporting mood and cognitive function.
Fat - Not all fat is the same. While bad fats can wreck your diet and increase your risk of certain diseases, good fats protect your brain and heart. Healthy fats—such as omega-3s—are vital to your physical and emotional health.
Carbohydrates - These are one of your body’s main sources of energy. But most should come from complex, unrefined carbs (vegetables, whole grains, fruit) rather than sugars and refined carbs that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients.
Fiber - Eating foods high in dietary fiber (grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, and beans) can help you stay regular and lower your risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. It can also improve your skin and even help you to lose weight. Depending on your age and gender, nutrition experts recommend you eat at least 21 to 38 grams of fiber each day for optimal health.
Calcium - Your body uses calcium to build healthy bones and teeth, keep them strong as you age, send messages through the nervous system and regulate the heart’s rhythm. Not getting enough calcium in your diet can also contribute to anxiety, depression and sleep difficulties.
Setting yourself up for success
Switching to a healthy diet doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to completely eliminate foods you enjoy, and you don’t have to change everything all at once—that usually only leads to cheating or giving up on your new eating plan.
To set yourself up for success, think about planning a healthy diet as a number of small, manageable steps—like adding a salad to your diet once a day—rather than one big drastic change. As your small changes become habit, you can continue to add more healthy choices.
Prepare more of your own meals. Cooking more meals at home can help you take charge of what you’re eating and better monitor exactly what goes into your food. You’ll eat fewer calories and avoid the chemical additives, added sugar and unhealthy fats of packaged and takeout foods that can leave you feeling tired, bloated, and irritable, and exacerbate symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety.
Make the right changes. When cutting back on unhealthy foods in your diet, it’s important to replace them with healthy alternatives. Replacing dangerous trans fats with healthy fats (such as switching fried chicken for grilled salmon) will make a positive difference to your health. Switching animal fats for refined carbohydrates, though (such as switching your breakfast bacon for a donut), won’t lower your risk for heart disease or improve your mood.
Simplify. Instead of being overly concerned with counting calories, think of your diet in terms of color, variety and freshness. Focus on avoiding packaged and processed foods and opting for more fresh ingredients.
Read the labels. It’s important to be aware of what’s in your food as manufacturers often hide large amounts of sugar or unhealthy fats in packaged food, even food claiming to be healthy.
Focus on how you feel after eating. The healthier the food you eat, the better you’ll feel after a meal. The more junk food you eat, the more likely you are to feel uncomfortable, nauseous or drained of energy.
Drink plenty of water. Water helps flush our systems of waste products and toxins, yet many of us go through life dehydrated—causing tiredness, low energy and headaches. It’s common to mistake thirst for hunger, so staying well hydrated will also help you make healthier food choices.
Moderation... it's important to a healthy diet
What is moderation? In essence, it means eating only as much food as your body needs. You should feel satisfied at the end of a meal, but not stuffed. For many of us, moderation means eating less than we do now. But it doesn't mean eliminating the foods you love.
Take your time. It actually takes a few minutes for your brain to tell your body that it has had enough food, so eating slower and stop eating before you feel full.
Eat with others whenever possible. Eating alone, especially in front of the TV or computer, often leads to mindless overeating.
It's not just what you eat, but when you eat
Eat breakfast, and eat smaller meals throughout the day. A healthy breakfast can jumpstart your metabolism, while eating small, healthy meals (rather than the standard three large meals) keeps your energy up all day.
Avoid eating late at night. Try to eat dinner earlier and fast for 14-16 hours until breakfast the next morning. Studies suggest that eating only when you’re most active and giving your digestive system a long break each day may help to regulate weight.
Make fruit and vegetables a tasty part of your diet
Fruit and vegetables are low in calories and nutrient dense, which means they are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Focus on eating the recommended daily amount of at least five servings of fruit and vegetables and it will naturally fill you up and help you cut back on unhealthy foods. A serving is half a cup of raw fruit or vegetables or a small apple or banana, for example. Most of us need to double the amount we currently eat.
To increase your intake:
Add antioxidant-rich berries to your favorite breakfast cereal
Eat a medley of sweet fruit—oranges, mangos, pineapple, grapes—for dessert
Swap your usual rice or pasta side dish for a colorful salad
Instead of eating processed snack foods, snack on vegetables such as carrots, snow peas or cherry tomatoes along with a spicy hummus dip or peanut butter