When I heard the phrase healthy food growing up, I was convinced I was going to either be eating dry lettuce and carrots like a rabbit or something bland and chalky, devoid of texture, salt, and appeal.
Like 95% of the American population, I grew up on the standard American diet: happily consuming whatever meat, cheese, eggs, and yumminess came my way. I had some dietary parameters, but I really enjoyed my diet and wasn’t super interested in eating much healthy food due to my past experiences with it.
Then I met a cook who made delicious food that didn’t have any animal products. This was the beginning of learning to like different healthy recipes. One year, I became a vegetarian for a New Year’s resolution. Now, nearly 15 years later, I adhere to and enjoy a plant-based diet and don’t eat meat, dairy, or eggs. I have enough energy for my lifestyle and realize that my diet is setting me up for a healthier aging process later in my life as well. Most importantly, I realize that my dietary choices influence my mental health and that my wise dietary choices today influence how my brain will operate tomorrow.
“My dietary choices today influence how my brain will operate tomorrow.”
People have a lot of reasons for reducing and eliminating animal products from their diet. For some, the knowledge that it takes about 460 gallons of water to produce a ¼ pound beef hamburger is compelling. [i] Others find that animal rights are a cause worth giving up meat for. Still more learn about the longevity benefit of being plant-based and desire to reduce their risk of many deleterious health conditions. Any of these are excellent reasons to make dietary changes toward being vegetarian or plant-based. But I would like to pose that the best reason to choose a plant-based diet is for the positive benefits for not only your physical body but also your mental health.
Mental illnesses are on the rise across the globe and are not being adequately treated. As a result, any steps we can take toward reducing, eliminating, or preventing such diseases for ourselves or our loved ones merit consideration.
Evidence clearly shows the relationship between diet and the treatment and prevention of mental disorders, especially depression. [ii] In 2017, dietary recommendations were published for preventing depression. These recommendations were created based on strong evidence from previous studies. The Nedley Depression & Anxiety Recovery Programs also support these recommendations:
Increase consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains
Include a high consumption of omega-3 fatty acids (found in ground flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, green soybeans, avocados, and blueberries)
Replace unhealthy foods with wholesome, nutritious foods
Limit intake of processed-foods, fast food, and commercially baked goods, and sweets [iii]
After adopting a plant-based diet, it takes seven to ten days to notice a difference in how you feel. Continued gradual improvement takes place as you replace damaging food constituents like arachidonic acid, cholesterol, and too much sodium and saturated fat with brain-enhancing nutrients. Receiving omega-3 fatty acids through plant sources have been found helpful for improving frontal lobe function, sense of wellbeing, energy, attention, mood, and controlling thoughts and behaviors. [iv]
“It takes 7 - 10 days to notice a difference in how you feel.”
Several amino acids are also very important for peak mental performance and treating depression. Tryptophan, needed to make serotonin and melatonin, is the least abundant amino acid in the diet. [v] Found in abundance in pumpkin seeds, seaweed, chia seeds, sesame seeds, and tofu, tryptophan can only enter the brain in concert with carbohydrates. Tryptophan, together with carbohydrates, can then be used by the brain. Dietary tyrosine, another important amino acid, improves stress, fatigue, sleepiness, and mood when present in the brain. It must also be eaten with carbohydrates to cross the blood-brain barrier. Tyrosine can be found in mustard greens, watermelon, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, and even tofu.
Incorporating foods rich in B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin D all are important for preventing depression. When deficient, these nutrients can cause depressive symptoms and clinical treatment may require supplementation. [ii] Your body can best absorb nutrients through what you eat, so choosing foods rich in these key nutrients can help you prevent depression. Other key nutrients your brain needs include iron for the creation of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and GABA and adequate B12. Evidence shows us that diet can prevent depression and serve as an effective treatment for depression and other mental health conditions. [iii]
While the Western diet is certainly tasty, there is much evidence demonstrating that it comes with significant risk to physical and mental health alike. The Western diet common to America is associated with an increased prevalence and incidence of depressive disorders and symptoms. But prospective epidemiological studies (very good studies) report that adhering to whole food (plant-based) diets decrease both the prevalence and incidence of depression and its symptoms.
I become vegetarian overnight. My journey to being plant-based took more time, but as evidence mounted, I adopted healthier practices.
Whether or not you are considering making dietary changes for the long-term benefit of your body and mind, I want to leave you with something I didn’t have when I first became vegetarian: tasty recipes.
Plant-based cooking instructions and recipes have improved significantly in the last twenty years. No longer do healthy foods have to taste chalky or be unsightly. I encourage you to try the recipes Erica Nedley has graciously provided you with below. Make one or two plant-based meals a week – your taste buds will learn quickly that healthy food is delicious and that plant-based vegetarians are not giving up fine dining. Instead, plant-based eating opens up a world of risk-free eating and variety that provides missing nutrients needed by our brains for peak mental performance. Erica Nedley’s Brighten Up Breakfast or Tami Biven’s From Plant to Plate are two plant-based cookbooks with yummy meals your entire family will love!
Try these recipes for your family’s Independence Day celebration or summer outings and see if you don’t find them to be tasty!
Fresh Blueberry Cream Cheese Pie
1 package plant-based cream cheese (Wayfare or Daiya), room temperature
1/4 c. maple syrup
3 tbsp. dry soy milk powder (such as Better Than Milk)
1/8 tsp. vanilla
1/3 c. plant-based cool whip (So Delicious Coconut Whip)
1 lb. fresh blueberries
Graham cracker or tart crust
Place the cream cheese in a mixing bowl and beat well with maple syrup, milk powder, vanilla, and cool whip.
Add the blueberries and gently mix.
Pour entire mixture into a graham-cracker pie or tart crust (can use a gluten free pie crust).
Chill at least 2 hours. Serve.
For an attractive garnish, decorate pie with edible flowers (such as stalks or pansies), fresh blueberries, and mint leaves
Green Soy Salad
(from Depression the Way Out)
1 12 oz. package frozen green soybeans (edamame)
1 16 oz. package frozen corn
1 8 oz. can water chestnuts
2/3 cup celery, finely chopped
1/3 cup green onion, thinly sliced
¼ cup red sweet pepper, diced
5 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 ½ tablespoon honey
1 ½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, pressed
1/8 teaspoon dill weed
¼ teaspoon sweet basil
Slice chestnuts in thin strips.
In a large bowl, combine all vegetables
In a small jar, combine the remaining ingredients, cover, and shake well. Chill at least two hours. Serve on lettuce leaves and garnish with fresh mint.
Cami Martin, MPH, is the Health Education Director for Nedley Health Solutions. She is the director and trainer for the community-based health education program Optimize Your Brain™, and a trainer for the 8-week Nedley Depression & Anxiety Recovery Program™. Her passion is disseminating information on living a mentally healthy lifestyle to people around the world. Cami works closely with all NHS programs to continually enhance and expand each program.