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Mood Foods: How Nutrition Affects Mental Health

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This guest post was written by Jeffrey Zurofsky, the culinary program director at Newport Academy in Bethlehem, Connecticut.

What we eat not only affects every aspect of our physical well-being, it also has profound implications for our mental health. New research validates that our food choices, how we source our food, the care we put into preparing it, and how we eat it all have the potential to increase our levels of happiness and stress resilience.

The Benefits of Cooking a Meal for Others

We can trace the mental health benefits of our meals all the way back to our home or community garden. According to new studies, growing our own food lowers the risk of anxiety and depression, reduces stress, and increases life satisfaction. This happens in several ways—through exposure to nature, physical exercise (which has proven mental health benefits) and the contemplative nature of gardening (also proven to boost our state of mind).

Once we’ve harvested our food, there are benefits to be reaped in the process of preparing the meal. A recent study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology offered hard evidence to support what we’ve all experienced: Being creative improves our mood. Since cooking is a creative act, those benefits are available to everyone who prepares their own food with care. On top of that, if we’re cooking for others, we get an additional mental health benefit — the “helper’s high,” that sense of well-being we feel when we do things for others. Cooking and serving a meal, and having people enjoy it, instantaneously creates a positive feedback loop.

How Food Impacts Our Mood

Then, of course, there are the mental health benefits of the food itself. Nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids (found in salmon, walnuts and chia seeds), vitamins D (eggs) and B (spinach, mushrooms and pineapple), folic acid (whole-wheat bread, green vegetables and nuts), magnesium (seaweed, beans and leafy greens), and tryptophan (turkey, eggs and beets), among others, have a measurable impact on depression and other mental health conditions. A healthy diet correlates with a healthy mind and mood.

The groundbreaking SMILES Trial, along with many other studies, demonstrates the amazing impact of food on our mood; after three months of a healthy diet, one-third of participants experienced remission from depressive symptoms.

Here’s more good news: Even if we don’t grow all our own vegetables or cook every meal ourselves, we can increase the mental health benefits of our food simply by enjoying it. Mindfully savoring our food is proven to enhance our well-being. Research confirms that meditation (essentially a structured form of mindfulness) can be as powerful as pharmaceuticals for relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression. Gratitude and appreciation have also been shown to increase happiness levels. So take time to notice and relish the flavor, texture, and aroma of your food, as well as its ability to nurture your body and mind.

This article was written by Jeffrey Zurofsky, the culinary program director at Newport Academy. To learn more, visit www.newportacademy.com.