By Silvia Solano, MS, RDN,

Nutrition Care Coordinator at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt

Have you heard the phrase, “You are what you eat?” Obviously, the proverbial saying does not mean we are doomed to turn into what we eat. It is simply the notion that to have a healthy functioning body, you need to fill it with all the nutrients it needs. In fact, the nutrients you consume are literally the building blocks that your body’s complex structure of cells, tissues, organs and systems needs to regenerate every day.

The same truth applies to your mind. Mental health begins at your kitchen table. Your endocrine and nervous systems rely on the buffet of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals you consume to regulate your hormones and mood. So perhaps that adage could be edited to say, “You think what you eat.”

That’s why it is vitally important for your mental wellness to fuel your body and mind with a colorful diet that is rich in lean protein, fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Low levels of some vitamins and minerals can cause symptoms like fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and a depressed mood.

Mood-Boosting Vitamins and Minerals

There is a long list of vitamins and minerals we should eat every day, but here are a few of the most important ones that help foster our mental wellness.

Iron is found in fortified cereals, beans, peas, meats, and dried fruit. We need iron to transport oxygen to and carbon dioxide away from our cells. Iron also helps our immune system function at its best. Vitamin C helps our body absorb the iron we eat. When our bodies do not absorb enough iron, it leads to anemia, or inadequate red blood cells. Anemia affects our mood by making us feel extremely tired as well as irritable.

Vitamin D is important as it helps our intestines absorb calcium and phosphorous, minerals needed for healthy bones and teeth. The primary natural source of vitamin D is through the sunlight, but it can also be consumed in fortified milk and cereals or fatty fish. Some observational studies show a correlation with Vitamin D insufficiency and depression, though more studies are needed.

Another culprit if you’re feeling depressed, tired, or cannot concentrate may be insufficient Folate. Folate is a B vitamin (B9) that occurs naturally in foods. Folic acid is the synthetic form of the vitamin that is sold as supplements and that is used to fortify foods. Folate helps tissues grow, forms your DNA, and generates protein and red blood cells. You can find folate naturally in orange juice, spinach, romaine lettuce, broccoli, peanuts, avocado, enriched-grain products and fortified breakfast cereals.

Physical Vs. Emotional Hunger

In addition to monitoring what you eat, we know that why you eat can also impact your mood. When your stomach is empty, it sends a signal to your brain that reminds you to eat. That is what we know as physical hunger. Ignoring these hunger cues and even purposely depriving yourself will lead to irritability, decreased metabolic rate, and may eventually lead to bingeing or overeating.

On the other hand, sometimes we eat for reasons other than physical hunger. In some instances, we eat for entertainment or distraction when we are bored. Sometimes when we are depressed or stressed, we eat for comfort. In these scenarios, we are responding to emotional hunger, rather than physical hunger.

You can differentiate emotional from physical hunger in a variety of ways. First, physical hunger comes on gradually: your stomach growls, you feel empty, your mouth starts to water until it progresses to discomfort that eases when you start to eat. In contrast, emotional hunger may come on all of a sudden and we feel we must satisfy it immediately. Physical hunger is flexible in its preferences. You may prefer a salad, but a sandwich will do, too. With emotional hunger, you crave one specific food and nothing else will appease it. Physical hunger also begins in your stomach—you feel an empty, gnawing pain in your stomach. Emotional hunger begins in your mind and in your mouth. Your mind pictures a certain taste and texture and your mouth wants to feel and taste that particular food. Physical hunger produces a deliberate response to eat, while emotional eating may be absent-minded. Physical hunger stops eating when satiated; emotional hunger keeps eating even when you are full. Finally, physical hunger recognizes eating as a necessary task to nourish your body; while emotional hunger may lead to overeating and it makes you feel guilty after you have eaten.

Following physical hunger cues and doing your best to identify and limit the times you obey emotional hunger cues help you give your body what it needs—and not give it what it doesn’t need.

Food and You

There is a direct connection between what you eat and your mood and ability to function. Listening to your body’s hunger cues and nourishing it with what it needs is crucial to helping you be your physical and emotional best self.

This can be tough. Especially as we enter the holiday season, food is all around us. In fact, overeating is part of the holiday tradition for many families! But even during the holidays, try to be mindful. Honor your body’s cues that tell you when you are hungry, consume foods you enjoy, and listen to your body when it tells you it’s full. If you overeat for a meal or two, it is not the end of the world! Truly. Too often, overeating leads to guilt, which then leads us to restrict. Perhaps that is why so many fad diets and gym memberships start in January (and are promptly abandoned by February). Instead of feeling guilty, let’s simply resolve to be more mindful of your eating during the next meal.

After all, you are what you eat and you think what you eat. So eat a rainbow of nourishment for a healthy body and happy mind in 2021.