Our sanity has been tested more than ever by the increased stress we feel from our new normal. During this time, there is not only an increased concern for our physical health, but also an increased focus on our mental health. The most common way to deal with this is by doing relaxation exercises, connecting socially with others, getting enough physical activity, and rested sleep. However, many of us may not be aware of the role diet plays in our mental wellbeing.

Research is done to examine the relationship between our food choices and the effects on our state of mind. From improving mood to reducing symptoms caused by mental illness, all aspects of mental health can benefit from nutritious foods.

During times of psychological stress, most people tend to overeat or overeat, which leads to changes in eating behavior. The same applies to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. In troubled times, eating can become a kind of coping that is easily forgotten or just plain disinterested. When drastic changes in eating occur, it affects our mood and energy. This is mainly due to changes in metabolism due to perceived stress from the body, low blood sugar from not eating, or fluctuations from more sugar than normal. It is known that hypoglycemia causes fatigue, irritability, and even feelings of anxiety. Another factor that contributes to mood swings is thought to be eating behavior associated with encephalitis, which has several links to causing anxiety and depression. The dietary guidelines for Americans have shown great concern about the excessive consumption of saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars in our country.

We have to consider our own eating habits in order to make lasting changes to our physical and mental health. This can be achieved by setting goals for greater consumption of nutrient-dense foods, including lean protein, whole grains, healthy fats, high-fiber fruits and vegetables. Eating this way will keep you full longer because it is not as easily absorbed as refined carbohydrates or sugar. The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to have protective effects on mental health due to its anti-inflammatory properties. This diet is high in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, two nutrients commonly known to improve mood and relieve symptoms of mild to moderate depression.

Another way to keep mood and energy levels in check is to stick to a meal schedule to eat at regular intervals throughout the day. It can be helpful to prepare food in advance to relieve stress, avoid choosing unhealthy foods, or making it easier to skip meals and snacks. Also, try getting creative with a new recipe to design a healthy meal that is appealing. You can even make it a social activity by involving family or friends. That way, you can enjoy a nutritious, brain-boosting meal and further improve your mood by connecting with others! Remember to take small steps to include these healthy foods: lean proteins, whole grains, healthy fats, high fiber fruits and vegetables all contribute to your physical and mental health.

Source: US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th edition

Kathy Smith is a Texas A&M AgriLife consultant based in Parker County.