As a first step to determining how to balance different food groups in your food plan, a look at the food pyramid provides a good general guide. Recently, the nutrition experts at the University of Michigan Health System’s Integrative Medicine program enhanced the information found on the traditional pyramid, creating the “Healing Foods Pyramid” to better reflect the latest thinking about the connection between what we eat and how we feel.
The Food Pyramid illustrates how different types of foods can be combined to build a balanced diet “from the ground up”. Food groups appearing closer to the base of the pyramid (such as fresh vegetables and fruits) should make up a larger portion of your daily food intake, relative to those found farther up the pyramid (eggs, dairy, and meats).
Here are some additional things to keep in mind when thinking about your own nutrition needs:
All carbohydrates are not created equal
Processed sugars (such as candy, cookies and sugary soda) and refined carbohydrates (breads, cakes and pastas made with white flour) provide only a temporary feeling of increased energy and fullness. That initial boost may be followed by a desire for more sweets and starches to prop up your mood and energy level. Instead, choose complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and healthy grains (breads, cereals and pasta made from whole grains) to ensure maximum nutritional and digestive benefits with fewer “spikes” to disrupt brain chemistry.
Increase your intake of the vitamins and minerals shown to combat depression
Researchers are continuously learning more about the complex ways that the body – and specifically the brain – reacts to the various building blocks of food. Here are a few recent findings that are particularly relevant to the management of depression:
- Depression has been linked to a shortage in the vitamins in the B family, including B6, B12 and Folic Acid. A standard multivitamin can help ensure an adequate daily intake of these vitamins, and eating plenty of leafy greens can also help boost Folic Acid.
- Vitamin D can also be an important tool in your nutritional arsenal. Studies have shown that some symptoms associated with depression such as anxiety and fatigue may be caused by a deficiency in vitamin D. Exposure to the sun, rather than eating specific foods, helps the body make vitamin D, but it’s not always possible to spend the day in direct sunlight. To ensure that the body’s vitamin D levels are high enough, a vitamin D supplement is required. Some experts recommend at least 1000 units per day. The most potent form of vitamin D is D3, also called cholecalciferol.
- Minerals including calcium, iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc also seem to help prevent or mitigate the symptoms of depression.
- Omega-3 fatty acids also appear to be potent depression-fighters. Clinical studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish including tuna, salmon and sardines, or in fish oil supplements, can significantly reduce depressive symptoms.
Aim for variety, and let color guide you
Ideally, your daily menu should include a “rainbow” of fresh fruits and vegetables to ensure you’re getting a balanced mix of nutrients. Combine those with carbohydrates made with whole grains, and lean proteins -- both animal-based, like chicken or fish, and plant-based like kidney beans or peas.
Your beverage choices are as important as your food choices
- Drinking plenty of water (at least 64 oz./day for women / 96 oz./day for men) is recommended, to keep the body properly hydrated and to aid in everything from digestion to maintaining healthy body temperature.
- Limit caffeinated beverages like coffee or soda, which can have a stimulating effect at first, only to be followed by a drop in energy level and mood later.
- Avoid alcohol.
You aren’t just what you eat. You’re when, where and how you eat, too
In addition to considering what foods you will eat, pay attention to the following when developing a moderate, sensible eating plan:
- Learn to listen to your body’s signals to know when to eat, and when to stop.
- Eat when you feel physical hunger.
- It takes several minutes for the body to signal fullness; stop eating before you feel full.
- Regulate your portion size – both overeating and undereating can stress your body physically and emotionally.
- Eat on a regular schedule.
- Don’t skip breakfast.
- Limit fast food and junk food. Both high sugar and high fat meals can have a negative effect on mood.
- Try to eat slowly and mindfully to enjoy each bite and avoid overeating.
- Think ahead: pack healthy snacks to avoid between-meal cravings.