We’ve all heard about being hangry. You go without eating for a while and suddenly every little thing irritates you and it just won’t stop until you get some food in your belly. If just going without eating for a little bit is enough to affect your mood, what does dieting do?
Making that big of a change in what you eat, as well as the quantity and frequency, is bound to have some pretty notable effects on your brain. These ideas have spurred a huge amount of research that’s attempting to find the links between food and mental health.
Nutrition and mental health are intricately linked. Over the past few years, researchers have made several major discoveries about the ways our diets—and the act of dieting—influence major mental health conditions and our everyday moods. Understanding these connections furthers our ability to manage our mental and physical health, as well as boosting the effectiveness of our diets.
How Food Affects Mental Health
The foods we put in our bodies (or avoid doing so) impact how our brains function. The Mediterranean diet, rich in whole grains, fruits, fish, vegetables, and olive oil, has regularly proven beneficial for people with common conditions like depression, in comparison to a traditional Western diet that contains lots of fats.
Even specific ingredients can be a problem. Sugar is a very addictive component since it triggers the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the “pleasure” hormone and is a core part of the brain’s reward system. When you diet and cut out sugar, you can literally go through withdrawal symptoms, which include headaches, irritability, fatigue, and even anxiety and depression.
Alternatively, even a resolution to start eating healthy can lead to mental health issues. Dieting can become a dangerous fixation. Overly focusing on counting calories or eating only “healthy” food can dramatically increase stress levels, which then contribute to serious mental and physical issues. If you have a “cheat day” or maybe enjoy a meal that isn’t in line with your diet, you may feel guilt that causes similar problems.
Since so many of us diet in an attempt to lose weight, the scale becomes our closest friend and our most hated enemy. Quantifying the “results” of a diet with the scale becomes the goal, rather than becoming healthier. You might have a day when your weight increases, which brings anger, guilt, or shame. However, our weight can fluctuate heavily from day to day, regardless of what we eat. Readjusting your mindset from micro goal tracking to a larger, overall plan may be healthier for your mental state.
Beyond that, skipping meals often leads to drops in blood sugar levels, which then causes tiredness and irritability—a.k.a. being hangry. Beyond that, studies show that inconsistent blood sugar levels have links to mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
Have a Plan That Includes Your Mental Health
Before you try a diet, think about how it will impact your mental health. Immediately cutting out every “unhealthy” thing you eat is difficult even without considering the mental effects. Make a plan to ease into diets. Think about foods that you can keep in your diet that bring you pleasure. Alternatively, find ways to cut down on your favorite foods’ sugar contents, calorie counts, or whatever else you need to keep them in line with your new diet.
Beyond that, remember that your worth and ability as a person are not linked to your diet or health goals. Becoming healthier—both physically and mentally—is a marathon, not a sprint. You may fall off your diet a few times or even try a bunch of diets. Very few people are able to restrict themselves 100 percent of the time. Don’t worry about trying to “make up” lost days where you didn’t follow your diet. Just focus on your end goal and keep working toward it. Plus, don’t be afraid to reach out to others if you’re struggling with your mental health while on a diet.
Be Mindful of Your Existing Issues
If you have an existing condition, be mindful of it before setting off on any new diet. Speak with a physician or a mental health expert about how changing your diet could affect your specific condition and what you might need to do to limit the impact. This goes beyond just the natural effects that dieting has on the brain. Changing what you eat could affect the efficacy of certain medications, so be ready for potential side effects. If you feel any changes in your medication’s effectiveness or if new problems pop up, immediately consult your doctor.
The relationship between your diet and your mental health is deep and complex. However, there are some things that you can do that will ensure you stay in a positive mental state without sacrificing your diet’s effectiveness.
- Start small. Slowly eliminate unhealthy foods or small parts of your meals and ease into your new diet.
- Eat regularly. Fasting is a popular method of losing weight, but it also leads to inconsistent blood sugar levels and mental changes.
- Drink fluids. Dehydration is a risk when changing your diet and it contributes to everything from fatigue and insomnia to conditions like depression and anxiety.
- Eat fats. Your brain needs fats to operate effectively and efficiently. Eat healthy fats, which are in things like olive oil, nuts, seeds, fish, avocados, and a host of other foods.
- Eat protein. Your brain needs protein to help regulate your mood.
- Add more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- Think about gut health. Foods that contain pre- and probiotics promote a healthy gut ecosystem, which then boosts your mood and combats mental health issues.
- Be wary of caffeine. We often use caffeinated beverages like coffee and tea to combat tiredness, food cravings, and hunger pangs, but caffeine can easily affect our sleep and increases problems with anxiety.
Ask for Help
If you’re struggling with your mental health while trying to follow a diet, don’t try and handle it alone. Working alongside a mental health professional can help you limit the effects of common problems like depression, which will also help you stay on your diet. Doing so can also prevent the formation of serious eating disorders.
At FHE Health, our experts have decades of experience handling a wide range of mental health conditions, including those that pop up while dieting. Whether yours is an existing problem or something that just recently developed, we can help you reach your goals—both mentally and physically. Contact us today with any questions about how we may be able to assist you.