Brain Food Diet Explained
A weekly eating plan to maintain your short- and long-term mental health
CONDITIONS such as anxiety and depression are complicated and connected to a number of factors, including genetics, personality and environment. But Grace Wong, a dietitian who specialises in mental health nutrition, says eating well can help your brain function at its best, which can help regulate how you feel.
“We know that there’s an association between a high-quality diet and a lower prevalence of mental illness,” she explains. “But we actually haven’t seen a direct cause and effect for a specific nutrient.” As you need a variety of nutrients for brain health, “when you’re eating different types of foods, you’re more likely to get all the building blocks you require for optimal brain function,” she says.
Ready to get started? Here’s a weekly road map to eating a brainboosting diet that will help you protect and maintain your mental health.
MONDAY BE REGULAR
Stick to three meals a day and one or two snacks, or have four or five smaller meals. “Our brains need a consistent and steady flow of fuel,” says Wong. Eating meals on an irregular basis can result in poor concentration, irritability and moodiness. As
well, this kind of eating can cause you to undereat or overeat and lose touch with feelings of hunger and fullness, she explains. Since anxiety and depression can cause changes in appetite, it’s important to be connected to these feelings.
TUESDAY IN THE MIX
It’s important to eat a wide variety of foods, says Wong. For this reason, she recommends staying away from crash or restrictive diets. Carbohydrates (for glucose), protein (for amino acids), healthy fats and vitamins are essential and work together, and you can only get what you need by eating different types of foods. The B vitamins important for brain health are water soluble, which means that our bodies don’t store them, so we have to replenish them. Try ground flaxseed for vitamin B1, bananas or tuna for vitamin B6, lentils or spinach for vitamin B9, and milk or eggs for vitamin B12.
WEDNESDAY CHECKING IN
Wong suggests that you check in with yourself on a regular basis to evaluate how you’re feeling about food and body issues. People with depression or anxiety may not feel good about themselves some days. Many hope that changing their diets or bodies may change how they feel, so they’ll deprive themselves of nutrients, or they may feel unworthy and not practise self-care. Be compassionate and patient with yourself, and make a point of eating at least one food you love to get through hump day.
THURSDAY CONSIDER YOUR CAFFEINE
Drinking one or two cups of coffee is OK, but it’s important not to drink too much, says Wong. “Caffeine stimulates the brain and can give a shortterm energy boost, but a high intake can decrease the brain’s sensitivity to natural messengers.” Swap one of your regular coffees or teas for a smoothie made with flaxseed oil (for omega-3s), Greek yoghurt (for protein) and some fruit (papaya is a good source of folate).
FRIDAY SHARING IS CARING
Eating with others is one way to boost the quality of your diet, says Wong. When people eat alone, they may be less likely to eat a variety of foods because they lack the motivation to make an enjoyable meal or don’t make eating a priority. So host a dinner party, invite a friend out for a meal or start a work lunch club, where everyone takes turns bringing a dish to share.
If a loved one is housebound, make a point of visiting to eat together. Wong notes that elderly people who don’t leave the house are at risk of nutrient deficiencies through a lack of variety in their diets.
SATURDAY IT’S A PLAN
Eating a varied and regular diet is easier if you have a plan, so try to
create a routine for meal planning, cooking and grocery shopping. But don’t worry, says Wong: there’s no need to make big changes all at once. “Don’t be too ambitious,” she says. “Start with what you have and slowly build on it.” A plan will also help when you feel less able to manage. “With depression, a lot of people lose their motivation to get up and engage with their day,” explains Wong. “They may not feel like they want to cook, grocery shop or eat, so they eat repetitive things. With anxiety, people may engage in emotional eating or may not eat at all as a way to cope when they feel overwhelmed.” If you are struggling, seek help. There’s no need to do this alone, says Wong.
SUNDAY TASTE TEST
Build your nutritional toolbox by trying out a new dish or ingredient. For a snack, consider pistachios, which are packed with B vitamins (vitamin B6, folate and thiamine) and high in the amino acid tryptophan, says Wong. Or give sunflower seeds, a source of vitamin B6 and amino acids, a go. Quinoa contains all of the essential amino acids, and amaranth, a versatile pseudo-cereal, is high in protein and can be added to salads, baked goods or soups, or popped like popcorn. Or, try a seafood you’ve never tried before. Mussels contain protein, thiamine and vitamin B12 and can be enjoyed steamed on their own, as part of a carb-rich pasta dish or in a stew.