Monica Whitten, Edmond Family Counseling Practicum Student
Most of us think about our physical health quite a bit, whether it’s wishing you were a few pounds lighter, thinking about your blood pressure, trying to fix chronic tummy trouble, etc. In an attempt to remedy these concerns, many people resort to a variety of diets and exercise regimes, especially those that claim by “adding this ingredient”, “avoiding this food group”, or “doing this once a day” will produce near-instant dieting success. Obviously, plans that promise significant weight loss are among the most common choices of diet, but have you ever thought about picking a diet that’s best for your brain? What would that diet even look like? Of the millions of diets out there, is there one that can do it all?
It’s fairly common knowledge now that a great deal of our immune system resides within in our gut. The good bacteria that live in our stomachs digest the food we consume and in return help us fight off foreign pathogens. But they don’t just fend off the bugs that are responsible for colds and flus. They also prevent toxins and other invaders from entering the blood stream and reaching the brain where, shockingly, they can affect our mood and even impact our psychological health. In short, these tiny helpers provide a barrier of defense between us and potential inflammatory diseases, physical illnesses, and yes, even mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
So if proper diet and exercise can help us feel better physically, why do we neglect these areas when we need a boost mentally? Both mental and psychological processes have been shown to improve with the right nutrition and activity levels. Of all the popular diets today, which ones are best for our brains? Scott C. Anderson from Psychology Today recommends several important areas of nutrition for beefing up your intestinal defenses. Diets that are high in fiber, omega-3’s, and fermented foods (such as yogurt and kombucha) and low in sugars and refined grains are more likely to produce a happy healthy brain. Additionally, a vitamin-rich diet full of folate, calcium, magnesium, and B-vitamins as well as vitamins E, C, and K can also produce awesome brain-boosting effects.
But with all of these recommendations, is it possible to find a brand-name (i.e., “Pinterest-able”) diet that checks all of these boxes? Let us take a look at some of the most popular diets today.
THE KETOGENIC DIET- Low-Carb diets are no new trend. Having been around for decades, the key difference between traditional low-carb diets and the trendy ketogenic diet is strictly the number of carbs. The high protein and fats recommended in this diet means there are plenty of opportunities to get the omega-3 fatty acids that make your brain happy. However, it does discourage some higher-carb fruits and veggies that may provide some of your essential vitamins, as well as nearly eliminating fiber in the form of whole grains. This doesn’t mean that those aiming for better mental health should avoid keto, but just bear in mind that alterations should be made, such as adding extra high-fiber veggies or taking a multi-vitamin.
THE PALEO DIET- The premise of this diet is to adhere to what we were “meant” to eat based on the diets of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Paleo diets are rich in veggies, lean proteins, fruits, seeds, and nuts while discouraging sugar, dairy, and grains. While this diet rocks at providing vitamins and minerals, adjustments are recommended to account for the lack of dairy and whole grains that can provide fiber, calcium, and probiotics. In addition to some mood-boosting benefits, Paleo may also help reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and promote weight loss.
MEDITERRANEAN DIET- Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner! Of all the popular diets today, the Mediterranean diet is earning the praises of nutritionists and psychologists alike. Emphasizing the traditional diets of Greece, Spain, and southern Italy, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes fish, olive oil, nuts, fruits and veggies, while still allowing for smaller amounts of whole grains, dairy, and yes, even wine! This diet is essentially exploding with vitamins, omega-3’s, and fiber while eliminating processed sugars and grains. In addition to keeping your mind sharp and your mood bright, this diet can also seriously lower the risk of heart disease, inflammatory illnesses, and can help you shed a few pounds in the process.
It is possible to eat a diet that promotes both physical and mental wellbeing, as well as potentially checking off a few other health goals along the way. It is important to be cautious of any diet recommending avoiding entire food groups, and supplementing with multivitamins and probiotics when needed. By making small adjustments to your favorite weight loss plan, you can gain a better mood and sharper brain in addition to losing a few inches off the waist.