Survival Update

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The Link Between Diet and Happiness

On this forum in the past, I have written about how your diet can affect your brain’s actual health. Today I would like to address the link between your diet and your mind. I will look at the connection between the foods you eat and your emotions such as anxiety, happiness, and depression. We already know that what we choose to eat can affect our waistlines as well as our overall physical health. What we don’t often consider is how our food choices play a role in creating a temporary mood or even a long-term mental outlook of happiness or depression.

For most of us, each and every day brings with it the opportunity to make decisions about what we will eat. A bag of potato chips or an apple? A pizza or some chicken and vegetables? I’m reasonably sure that most of us know how each of these choices will affect our physical health. Current research is now giving us answers as to how these same choices will affect our mental health as well.

If you are like me, you may crave some unhealthy food when you are anxious, tired, or unhappy. For me it is usually ice cream or chips. And to be honest, there is a certain sense of satisfaction when I am eating a comfort food. Did you know that one-third of adults in America eat fast food on a given day? I guess I’m not the only one looking for some French fries when the going gets tough. What I’ve learned, though, is that the comfort is short-lived and then the poor mood returns. Maybe it’s time for all of us to look at food in a different way. With a few dietary changes, we might be able to improve both our minds and our moods.

First let’s take a look at what research tells us about diet and depression. A group of scientists looked at 16 different, and very diverse, studies with nearly 46,000 participants from the U.S., Australia, and Europe. They ranged in age from 21 to 85, and were asked to change their diets so the results could be measured in terms of depression. Some folks followed vegan diets, others reduced fat intake, and still others practiced intermittent fasting. Some of them had personalized counseling, while others followed written guidelines.

The results? Those that ate fewer processed foods and more fruits, vegetables, nuts, and lean meat did indeed experience reduced symptoms of depression. They felt more hopeful, slept better, and found it easier to connect with others. Another finding was that these dietary changes worked slightly better for women than men (although both sexes benefitted) and the positive changes were most pronounced in those who had originally exhibited the more severe depression.

OK, so we know that symptoms of depression can be relieved with a healthier diet, but how about happiness itself? Can the foods we eat actually make us happier? While there are fewer studies on this topic, the ones that have been done find that simply adding one extra serving of fresh fruits or vegetables to our daily diet can boost energy as well as produce higher levels of curiosity, creativity, and motivation.

So how should all of this affect your choices at the grocery store or restaurant? It seems as though there are several ways to adopt a diet that is good for your mental health. The overall findings indicate that we would all benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish or lean protein, and legumes. You don’t have to follow a strict diet to improve your levels of happiness, just make the choices that fit both your food preferences and are healthy. Bon appetit!