We usually understand what foods are good for us and what foods are bad for us. But when we think of these "bad foods," we often think of how bad they are for our physical appearance like our weight and waistlines. But we don't stop to think about how they might affect our mental health.
The reality is that one in five Canadians will experience a form of mental illness at some point in their lives and what you eat can have a big impact on this. These are some foods that have the potential to worsen symptoms of depression and why they should be avoided.
#1. Refined Sugar
Unless you live under a rock, you know by now that sugar isn't great for you. But refined sugar has been deemed the "sweetest poison of all." It is basically raw sugar that has been "refined" into the pure white stuff we have grown to love (and hate). When raw sugar is refined, it is depleted of its vitamins and minerals. Such a product is often called "empty calories" because it contains absolutely nothing our body can use. Some even call it poison since it actually leaches vitamins and minerals from our bodies.
Eating too much refined sugar causes inflammation. Women who consume inflammatory foods such as refined sugar have a 41 per cent increased chance of being diagnosed with depression than those who consume a low inflammatory diet. Inflammation may also affect the neurotransmitters in the brain that are linked to depression.
You probably aren't going to like what I'm about to tell you. Alcohol has a depressant effect on the brain that can really mess with your mood. Like refined sugar, it causes inflammation and depletes our nutritional stores especially thiamine and zinc. Low levels of these nutrients have been linked to low mood, irritability and even aggression. Excess alcohol can also interfere with our body's ability to produce the happiness neurotransmitter, serotonin.
#3. Red Meat
Caffeine stimulates the nervous system and high consumption has been linked to depression. More obviously, caffeine often keeps us awake at night and these sleep disturbances really affect our mood. That pounding headache and energy crash that we often experience when in caffeine withdrawal - yup, that also really affects our mood. And the last tidbit that I'll share is that caffeine has been shown to interfere with our body's ability to produce serotonin (the "happiness" neurotransmitter).
High consumption of aspartame-containing foods has also been linked to depression. Aspartame contains an amino acid called phenylalanine, which may decrease serotonin levels. Aspartame is found in diet soda and artificial sweeteners.
Now, I know you may be thinking that cutting out these ingredients is impossible. But take it one day at a time. Make small shifts to reduce your intake of these foods. One less coffee a day, one less drink at night or go meat-free one day every week. These tiny steps will lead to big improvements in your mental health over time. To help you get started, we've developed meal plans that are 100 per cent free of refined sugar, alcohol, red meat, gluten, caffeine and aspartame. Check out That Clean Life to get started.
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Salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel and char are high in omega-3 fats. Registered dietitian Julie Seale recommends eating them twice a week.
Kefir, kombucha, kimchi and yogurt are just some of the fermented foods which supply the gut with probiotics. Probiotics can help reduce inflammation in the gut.
Foods that contain whole grains tend to be high in fibre, which can reduce c-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation in the body.
Leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale contain vitamin E, which can protect the body from cytokines, which are pro-inflammatory molecules.
Walnuts and flax are packed with omega-3 fats and all nuts contain the same inflammatory reducing, vitamin E.
Less-processed soy like soy milk, tofu and edamame contain isoflavones, which may help lower c-reactive protein.
Beets are rich in antioxidants and contain the phytochemical betalain to help reduce inflammation.
Extra virgin olive oil contains a compound called oleocanthal, which mimics the effect of NSAIDs like ibuprophen.
Garlic and onions contain allicin, which has anti-inflammatory properties. But allicin is reduced by heat, so eating it raw is best.
In Asian culture, both ginger and turmeric are praised for their healing benefits. Though the evidence is not strong, they are flavourful, so why not add them to your cooking, says Seales.
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