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ODU Dietitian: What You Eat Can Impact Mental Health

By Noell Saunders

Depression is the leading cause of poor health and disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization's latest report that says 300 million people are currently living with depression, an increase of more than 18 percent between 2005 and 2015.

While a number of factors can determine who's at risk, an emerging field of study called nutritional psychiatry looks at how diet impacts mental health.

Tracy Conder, Old Dominion University's dietitian, adds that nutritional psychiatry will help experts find better recommendations to treat health concerns such and depression and anxiety. Those recommendations promote food as medicine.

"For years, nutrition has been linked to physical health, including the brain function. Now with more research, we have a better understanding of how nutrition for the brain affects mental health," she said.

Certain foods and spices can stabilize mood, lower anxiety, decrease inflammation and lead to improved positivity.

Conder's recommendations for replacing unhealthy foods to achieve optimal mental health include:

  • Replace refined cereal and grains-(bread, cereal, crackers, muffins, etc.) with oats, brown rice or quinoa
  • Replace Oils and fats- (high in omega-6 instead of omega-3 fatty acids like sunflower, corn and sesame oil) with fish, almonds, walnuts and flaxseed. Avoid fat free products containing fat substitutes.
  • Replace sugar and sugar substitutes- (soda, cookies, pastries etc.) with a serving of fruit and drink water instead of soda. Avoid products with sugar substitutes and remember to limit caffeine. Drinking caffeine is like borrowing tomorrow's energy today.
  • Replace processed soy- (soy milk, soy flour, soy cheese) with fermented soy including tempeh, miso, tamari, small amounts of tofu and soy beans/edamame. The fermentation process partially neutralizes the toxins in soybeans. Limit soy intake to less than 25 grams of soy protein a day.
  • Replace fast food- (burgers and fries, milk shakes, full fat salad dressing, etc.) with self-packed lunch. Choose restaurant items like grilled chicken; spinach and kale salads and; healthy sides like brown rice or sweet potatoes.

"You really can eat better to feel better," Conder said.

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