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:
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!
For an attractive garnish, decorate pie with edible flowers (such as stalks or pansies), fresh blueberries, and mint leaves
(from Depression the Way Out)
(from Brighten Up Breakfast)
Makes 2 servings.
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[i] Perlman, H., & USGS. (n.d.). U.S. Geological Survey. How much water does it take to grow a hamburger? Retrieved July 1, 2019, from https://water.usgs.gov/edu/activity-watercontent.html
[ii] LaChance, L. R., & Ramsey, D. (2018). Antidepressant foods: An evidence-based nutrient profiling system for depression. World journal of psychiatry, 8(3), 97–104. doi:10.5498/wjp.v8.i3.97
[iii] Opie, R. S., Itsiopoulos, C., Parletta, N., Sanchez-Villegas, A., Akbaraly, T. N., Ruusunen, A., & Jacka, F. N. (2017). Dietary recommendations for the prevention of depression. Retrieved July 1, 2019.
[iv] Fontani G et al. (2005). Cognitive and physiological effects of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in health subjects. Eur J Clin Invest, 35(11):691-9.
[v] Nedley, Neil. (2018). Nedley Depression & Anxiety Recovery Program Workbook.
Omega-3 is a fatty acid found in water plants that offers a wide range of health benefits.