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By Michelle Lau
COVID-19-depression is real, and so is the urge to reach for comfort food, but eating with care is a much better, healthier, and more sustainable solution to the mental health pandemic.
Now more than ever, we need to be mindful of our mental health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we may find ourselves a bit more stressed or bummed out, and food is one mechanism to cope with the negative emotions and feel better.
We all have to eat, but did you know that what you eat can affect not only your physical health but also your mental health? Feeding your brain the right nutrients can keep it healthy, happy, and functioning properly. In turn, this will help you stay focused, energetic, and mentally sharp, which is of particular importance if you are a startup founder.
There are plenty of nourishing ingredients at your local grocery stores. You just have to know what to look for. Most of the key nutrients needed for brain health are found naturally in produce, so it’s usually best to choose real food over supplements, unless advised otherwise by a medical professional. To help get you (mentally) in shape, here are some nutritious foods that will feed your mind along with your body.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables contain valuable nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and dietary fibers. For example, magnesium, found in avocados, nuts, and salmon, and vitamin C, found in broccoli, berries, and kale, can help reduce anxiety. Fruits and vegetables are also natural sources of fiber, which can relieve anxiety.
But Hong Kong people tend to fall short of the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, which is two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are great brain food because they contain antioxidants and other plant chemicals that can reduce inflammation, help improve communication between brain cells, and reduce or delay age-related neurodegenerative disease and cognitive decline.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
The central nervous system (brain!) produces chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and others that regulate mood and process thoughts. Serotonin deficiency, in particular, can cause anxiety and depression, and about 90% of serotonin receptors are found in the gut.
Prebiotics are non-digestible components naturally found in the gut that promote the growth of good bacteria, while probiotics are the live, ‘good’ bacteria in the gut. Both work to regulate your gut health, and will by extension support your mental health.
Yogurt with active cultures is a readily available and economical source of probiotics, along with fermented foods like miso, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha. Sauerkraut and cheeses, such as cheddar, mozzarella and gouda, are other good sources. Prebiotic-rich foods include bananas, berries, beans, legumes, oatmeal, garlic, and onions, all of which are easily found at supermarkets.
Spices are calorie-free and flavorful, and their impact on brain and gut health is often overlooked. Turmeric is one spice that’s been trending recently, though in actual fact it’s been a part of culinary and religious tradition in India for nearly 4,000 years. Turmeric is gives curry its yellow color, and its main active ingredient, curcumin, is the part that offers the most health benefits.
Curcumin supports brain function and might lower the risk of brain disease because it increases the levels of brain-derived neutrophic factors, important growth molecules in the brain. Adding just a quarter teaspoon of turmeric a day into a coffee, smoothie, or soup is an easy way to get a boost and tackle anxiety, depression, and many other conditions.
Dried oregano, cinnamon, chili powder and thyme are other spices with high antioxidant levels.
There is nothing wrong with an occasional dietary reward, which is why chocolate is so often thought of as a ‘health food’ as long as you don’t get into the habit of comfort eating. Just make sure you are eating dark chocolate that contains at least 70% cacao. Cacao contains flavonoids, important antioxidants which are known to support brain health and function. Dark chocolate can also improve the brain’s plasticity, which is crucial to many brain functions, such as learning and memory.
Most standard chocolate bars don’t offer the same health benefits as dark chocolate, and the high levels of sugar can actually accelerate aging and inflammation, so be sure to check the label carefully before you make a purchase or take your first bite.
Last but not least, start paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel – not just in the moment, but the next day. Try eating a “clean” diet for a couple weeks – that means cutting out all processed foods and sugar (you don’t have to reach for a charcoal latte). See how you feel. Then slowly introduce certain foods back into your diet, one by one, and see how you feel.
Taking steps to improve your diet for your mental health is important now and going forward, regardless of the pandemic. A healthy diet can help mitigate or provide a buffer against the negative effects our current environments are having on our mental health. Eating with thought and care will set the stage for a beneficial gut microbiome and less inflammation, both of which will be the key to mental health, immune health, and even chronic disease risks once we are out of the pandemic-woods.
About the Author
Michelle is a Registered Dietitian (MSc.), nutrition educator, media personality, and the founder of NUTRILICIOUS, a B2B nutrition consultancy and communications company that aspires to inspire millions across Asia to eat their way to healthier and happier lives. Michelle and her team passionately motivate all audiences to Eat Whole, Train Smart, Live Full and deliver science-based nutrition information in fun and “digestible” ways. As an avid runner and obsessive home baker, she appreciates and prioritizes balance in all areas of life. “Change the world, One bite at a time.”
Header image by Megan Thomas on Unsplash.