Studies have long suggested that eating properly, in addition to making your body feel good, can improve your overall mental health. For example, one study found that people who eat hardly any fruits and vegetables can experience a boost in happiness equivalent to what an unemployed person feels when they find a job simply by adding eight servings of produce to their daily diet. This improvement happens fast, too. “Eating fruit and vegetables apparently boosts our happiness far more quickly than it improves human health,” said study author Andrew Oswald in a press release.
Other studies have found a link between B vitamins — which can be found in asparagus, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cantaloupe, honeydew melons, bananas, pineapples, pistachios and Brazil nuts, among other healthy foods — and increased levels of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that improves mood. Furthermore, studies show that high levels of carotenoids, an antioxidant that gives foods like tomatoes, chili peppers and carrots their bright color, can improve how optimistic we feel.
Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, also explains that eating healthy, unprocessed foods can “give you a sense of well-being, since you know you’re doing well for your body.”
However, as anyone who’s gone on a serious diet knows, eating healthy in an attempt to improve your mental health can sometimes have the opposite effect. “If you force yourself to eat healthy without really enjoying it, you risk jeopardizing your mental health, since you’re ignoring your natural bodily and emotional needs,” psychologist Jeanette Raymond explains. “That’s why diets don’t work: The bad feeling of having to force yourself to eat something specific induces stress, and that alters the hormonal balance (which includes insulin) involved in giving you that ‘full’ feeling. Also, when you force yourself to eat healthy, there will come a time when you can’t fight yourself and are liable to binging, undoing any health benefits.”
This is often the case when already-depressed people attempt to eat themselves happier. But while it may sound counterintuitive, thwarting those negative emotions can be as simple as easing up on your healthy diet. “The most important part of eating healthy is making those choices with all parts of your senses, not only from an intellectual place of, ‘I must eat healthy, and therefore, I have to shut off my sense of smell and taste.’ When you give yourself what you feel like in the moment, rather than pre-planning everything, you’re more likely to have a balanced diet that offers health benefits,” Raymond explains.
“This process works on a ‘gut’ feeling that satisfies your taste buds and bodily needs, ensuring you don’t overdo it or eat stuff you aren’t in the mood for but do just to be a ‘good person,’” she continues. “That doesn’t last and is often taken over by a bodily sense of dissatisfaction and emptiness, which is anything but healthy. You’re simply more likely to get depressed if you eat according to some plan that ignores your in-the-moment desires.”
Obviously, those in-the-moment desires can often be super unhealthy eats, like Taco Bell and Cheetos. But your body will inevitably crave healthy things, too. “Tuning into what you feel like can help you make healthy choices,” Raymond confirms. “For example, if you feel like something crunchy, consider nuts — especially high-protein ones, like almonds — and raw salads.”
“This is different to binging on comfort food when you’re down in the dumps,” Raymond reiterates. “Awareness of what your body wants is part of a good mental health routine, since it promotes more general self-awareness — a hallmark of stable and peak mental health.”
It all goes back to Hunnes’ earlier point about how taking care of yourself can make you feel better. “Tuning into your body and answering appropriately when it comes to food choices allows you to trust yourself, feeling more confident and in control of your life,” Raymond explains. “You’ll be able to eat ‘naughty’ things with friends now and then without worrying about overdoing it or losing control. By tuning into your body, you learn to provide just enough of what it needs, even if that’s a calorie-laden dessert every once in a while — if it’s a craving or something you do with family at a celebration, it has immense psychological effects of bonding and feelings of belonging. Your body processes the dessert differently if you eat it feeling good than if you eat it feeling guilty or ashamed, since those strong emotions release stress hormones that affect digestion and encourage the body to store fat.”
Now, this doesn’t mean you’re free to eat whatever you want. In fact, Raymond still suggests sticking to “real food,” rather than processed crap, like cold cuts, chicken nuggets and fish sticks, which will almost certainly make you more depressed if eaten with any regularity. Instead, the main takeaway should be that eating healthy makes you happier, but so does indulging in your desires now and again, even if those desires aren’t always so healthy.
As with pretty much everything, it’s important that you find a middle ground, which in this case is a well-rounded diet filled with fruits and vegetables, but also a mindset that allows for the occasional slip-up without beating yourself up about it.