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About 15% of U.S. Latinos had a diagnosable mental illness in the past year—that’s enough people to fill New York City.
How can this population achieve healthier minds?
A healthy diet is, not surprisingly, a great first step.
In fact, good nutrition protects against depression and anxiety; poor nutrition is a risk factor for those conditions, according to an emerging field of research.
“By helping people shape their diets, we can improve their mental health and decrease their risk of psychiatric disorders,” Dr. Drew Ramsey of Columbia University told WebMD.
The State of Mental Health
Only about 1 in 5 Americans consider themselves in optimal mental health.
Depression afflicts more than a quarter adults. By 2020, depression will rank as the second-leading cause of disability, after heart disease.
It’s not just a problem for adults. About half of all mental disorder longevity start in early adolescence. Mental illness affects more than 17 million U.S. kids.
What Food Does Your Brain ‘Lobe’?
Your brain and its four lobes are 2% of your total body weight.
Yet it consumes 20% of our daily energy needs in order to fuel electrical impulses for communication and cell maintenance.
The food you eat helps drive your brain’s performance.
A nutritious brain diet follows the same rhetoric as a heart healthy regimen or weight control plan. One should limit intake of sugary and high-fat processed foods and opt for whole grains, healthy fats, and plant foods.
But only 37.7% of U.S. adults consume fruits less than one time a day, 22.6% for vegetables—even less so among Latino. Studies have shown the risk of depression increases about 80% among teens with a low-nutritional-quality, high-fat diet, compared to teens with better diets.
Nutrients that Tackle Mental Illness
The key is to select foods that contain as many nutrients in as few calories as possible. Nutrients that might be particularly helpful for treating or averting mental illness include:
- Whole Grains. A diet high in whole grains and fruits like avocados can cut the risk of heart disease and lower bad cholesterol, it also enhances blood flow and reduces risk of plaque, firing up brain cells.
- Consume B vitamins. People who are deficient in B12 have more brain inflammation and higher rates of depression and dementia. Foods like eggs, fortified cereals, beef, and wild caught salmon boost brain health, encourages optimal energy levels, and increases red blood cell production and oxygen levels in the body.
- Omega-3s. These healthy fatty acids improve thinking and memory and, possibly, mood. For instance, fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that have great brain power: lowering the risk of dementia and stoke risks and slower mental decline, plus playing a crucial role in enhancing memory, as we get older.
- Iron. Lentils, black beans, spinach, and raisins are healthy choices for their high levels of iron, protein, and cancer fighting antioxidants. Low levels of iron in the blood (iron-deficiency anemia) has been linked to depression. Dark chocolate has antioxidants, which increases blood flow to the brain, aiding mood and memory.
- Stay Hydrated. The brain is about 75% water. When consistently hydrated, it ensures the brain better concentration/mental alertness by delivering nutrients to the brain and removing toxins; instead of experiencing brain fogs, focus issues, afternoon fatigue and other mental symptoms when due to brain dehydration. New research correlates sugary drinks—as well as diet soda—to smaller brain volume and memory deficits.
Many foods also are proven to reduce anxiety.
Foods rich in zinc such as oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks have been linked to lowered anxiety, according to Dr. Uma Naidoo, a contributor to Harvard Health Publishing.
Probiotic foods also are associated with lower social anxiety, Naidoo said.
“Eating probiotic-rich foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, and kefir was linked with fewer symptoms,” she said.
Help Others Achieve Healthier Minds
Besides making personal dietary change, why not pay it forward?
There are many actions to promote mental health. These include creating living conditions that support mental health and allow people to adopt and maintain healthy lifestyles. School mental health promotion activities, early childhood interventions, and community development programs are other ways to create and shape a mentally healthy community.
For ideas, check out some of our other posts on healthier minds.