Nourish Your Body and Mind

By Sarah Martin, RDN

The word nutrition often brings to mind weight-watching or calorie-counting, but good food can do more than maintain a trim physique. A nourished body is also better equipped to resist the debilitating effects of chronic illness, and research demonstrates the role nutrition plays in treating mood disorders. This is especially relevant now, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that over half of U.S. adults will be diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime. That is a staggering number, and treatment must be multidisciplinary. 

Eating nourishing food is one of the most basic ways to support our physical and mental health. Good nutrition helps us heal, fight illness, move well as we age, and protect our mental health against the stresses of life. Our bodies use nutrients from food to make the components that carry out hundreds of processes. These include hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters, and even our cells. By nourishing our bodies with quality fuel, we provide its systems with the required nutrients and building blocks to keep us feeling good and moving well.

Digestion is the first step to utilizing those nutrients, and is dependent on many moving parts — including a healthy gut lining, good bacteria to assist in digestion, and fiber to keep things moving. Fermented foods like yogurt or kimchi can help keep your gut microbiome healthy. Gut health affects many of our body’s functions, and some of our brain chemicals rely on this directly. In fact, serotonin, our “happy chemical,” is mostly made in the gut!

Studies show that following a healthy diet pattern, such as the Mediterranean Diet, can help reduce the effects of conditions such as anxiety or depression. While all nutrients are important, a few are key nutrients for brain health. Omega-3s, a form of heart-healthy fat derived mainly from fish, nuts, and seeds, have powerful anti-inflammatory effects. B vitamins are important for maintaining energy and mood balance, and come from a wide range of foods including meat, grains, eggs, and nuts. Low vitamin D can be associated with fatigue. It is produced in our skin when we’re exposed to sunlight, or can be consumed from dairy products. 

The best way to nourish your body and mind is to eat a variety of whole foods. Fruits, veggies, protein, grains, and dairy all provide vital nutrients. Some simple rules we can follow to reap these benefits are to eat a rainbow of colors from the fruit and veggie group; making half your grains whole (think oats, whole wheat, brown rice); and include a variety of lean proteins including poultry, fish, eggs, and beans, with some low-fat dairy. 

Nutrition can be a powerful tool in the arsenal for optimizing mental health. Mental disorders are more common than we realize. While seeking medical treatment for mental health disorders is essential, it is also important to understand the role of good food in helping to nourish your body and mind! 

Sarah Martin, RDN, is a Registered Dietitian in Buffalo, NY.