Diet, Exercise, & Emotional Health

diet and mental health

Mental health is so closely tied to the state of your physical wellbeing. The quality of your diet and your exercise habits can dictate your mood, motivation, energy levels, attention and focus, and even your self-esteem. In fact, diet and exercise are so influential on emotional health that making changes in these two areas alone can lead to improvements in how you feel mentally and emotionally—even if other factors in your life don’t change, such as the presence of stress.

Maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise improves and maximizes the functioning of neurotransmitters and hormones in the brain and body. These chemicals have a direct impact on the neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate your mood. Unhealthy foods and a sedentary lifestyle can create an imbalance in the brain and body, placing you at risk for symptoms of depression or anxiety. This doesn’t mean that diet and exercise alone can eliminate risk of mental health concerns, but it certainly is something that cannot be overlooked if you want to feel your best and enjoy optimal quality of life. Below we will discuss some specific diet and exercise-related factors that are important to target to reduce your risk of developing emotional concerns or improve your mental wellbeing if you’re currently struggling with symptoms.

1. Avoid spiking your blood sugar.

Even if you don’t like sweets, keep reading. Carbohydrates, especially eating more carbs than you need, will spike your blood sugar significantly since carbs turn into sugar in the body. The idea behind avoiding blood sugar spikes as much as possible is that this can significantly affect your mood and anxiety levels. And this doesn’t just apply to people with diabetes. Regular, every day people (of all ages) experience blood sugar spikes after eating sugar and an excess amount of carbs only we’re not aware of this because if you’re not diabetic, you don’t hang around with a blood sugar meter in your pocket.

Another danger of blood sugar spikes: When your sugar (i.e., insulin) levels are high, the body cannot burn fat. This is a big part of the reason why maintaining a healthy weight is difficult if you’re eating too much carbs and sugar. Excess sugar intake is also tied to so many chronic illnesses from cancer to dementia and many others. This doesn’t mean you should swear off bread and dessert, but you should definitely work on making these favorite food items an occasional treat, not an every day indulgence.

As far as carbs, you might be wondering how much is too much. This varies by age, activity level, and your individual body chemistry. Some people can tolerate a normal amount of carbs while others can tolerate little to no carbs in their diet. There are carb calculators online that you can look up to see how much many grams of carbs you should aim for on a daily basis. You might be surprised to see that the amount you should be eating every day for your best health really isn’t that much! Nowadays, many health experts are recommending increasing your consumption of vegetables (of course), as well as healthy proteins and fats, and going easy on the carbs. Some people try to eliminate carbs and sugar altogether, but this is best done by weaning yourself off gradually. If you want a good middle-ground, try spending a few days per week on a low- or no-carb diet and see how this helps your mood, energy level, attention, concentration, and motivation. People in countries and cultures who eat a diet made up of mostly healthy protein and fat tend to have better emotional and physical health compared to countries and cultures that prioritize carb-based diets.

2. Eating too often.

We’ve always believed that eating three meals a day plus snacks is what we’re supposed to do to keep our “metabolism” going. However, unless you’re snacking on lettuce leaves or celery sticks, this concept of eating several times throughout the day can lead to constant blood sugar spikes, which we know is a very negative thing for both emotional and physical health. Even sticking to just three healthy meals daily and no snacks causes too many blood sugar spikes. Although sugar and carbs are the main culprits of these spikes, all foods, including protein and vegetables, will increase your blood sugar. The problem with this constant up and down of your insulin levels is that it will not only lead to energy crashes throughout the day (and lead to your mood tanking), but eventually, most people will develop insulin resistance.

Intermittent fasting is all the buzz right now on the Internet and social media, but the reality is that this isn’t a diet fad. Fasting has been around for centuries—likely since prior to recorded history. Many people and cultures still practice fasting. The idea is to limit your food intake to only one to two times daily and giving yourself a fasting period of anywhere from 12 hours to 24 hours or longer! This is definitely something that requires some research and there’s plenty of information online and on YouTube on how to do intermittent fasting safely and correctly, but fear not: You won’t be starving or pass out from limiting when and how often you eat if you work gradually and get your body accustomed to it. Our ancestors fasted for hours and even days at a time because hundreds and thousands of years ago, people didn’t have a fridge or a pantry (or Uber eats) with round the clock access to food. However, fast-forward to modern times where we have access to an excess of food, it’s no wonder many of us struggle with weight loss, physical illnesses, and emotional and mental health issues. According to many health experts, our bodies simply are not meant to eat all the time and digest food on a constant basis. Our digestive system needs time to rest and our mind and body often lets us know of this.

3. Getting the right amount of exercise.

A sedentary lifestyle can certainly place you at risk of depression and anxiety; however, over-exercising can be an issue too. Balance and moderation is key here. The amount of exercise that’s right for you varies based on your age and other individual differences, but typically two-and-a-half hours weekly of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise weekly is recommended. Many people can handle a bit more. We all have days where the last thing we want to do is exercise, but even just a 15-minute walk can lift your mood, motivation, and energy level significantly. The idea is to try to stay active every day and avoid overdoing it, which can undermine the benefits of exercise and actually place you at risk of mental health symptoms.

Arnold Gillo, MSW, LCSW is a Licensed Therapist, a Behavioral Health Consultant, and the Clinical Program Planner for State of Nevada ICF Program