The foods we eat can have either a negative or positive impact on our mental health. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of choices in the modern world only leads to confusion about what people should eat. In the past, the only food available came from nature, so people took whatever they could get. Now, we’ve made eating far more complicated than necessary, making our brains exhausted from debating what diet to follow.
But eating doesn’t have to feel like rocket science, and it shouldn’t. In general, if you eat natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, you’ll have sound mental and physical health.
Also, keeping stress low helps you maintain a balanced mindset, as high cortisol levels can contribute to mental illnesses. Stress and anxiety also make it more difficult for your body to assimilate nutrients because they affect the digestive system.
Therefore, being healthy requires more than just eating a nutritious diet. You must also care for your spiritual health by meditating, doing yoga, and practicing deep breathing. In addition to following a plant-based diet, these modalities will ensure your vitality and give you bountiful energy.
But to become healthier, you must know what foods to avoid. We’ll review some of the worst foods for mental health below so you can stay on the right track.
Experts Reveal 7 Foods That Create Poor Mental Health
1. Highly processed foods harm mental health by causing inflammation in the brain
Unsurprisingly, ultra-processed foods like cakes, pastries, chips, and fast food cause poor mental health. These foods have little to no nutritional value and cater to people who don’t have time to cook healthy meals. However, they’re a poor substitute for a home-cooked meal since they contribute to various diseases. Processed foods increase inflammation, which leads to cognitive decline, anxiety, depression, and even neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s.
One study confirmed this by feeding rats a highly refined diet that mimicked “Western” prepackaged foods for four weeks. Researchers found the rats had elevated inflammatory markers in the hippocampus and amygdala, which led to memory loss and cognitive dysfunction. However, they discovered that giving the rats a DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) supplement helped reduce inflammation caused by processed foods.
Still, it’s best to avoid these foods even if you take supplements, as they can cause other health problems. Cancers, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions have been linked to a diet high in processed foods.
What to eat instead of processed foods:
Unprocessed foods can positively impact brain health by providing essential nutrients. These foods contain high levels of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other beneficial compounds that can improve cognitive function, boost memory, and reduce the risk of neurological disorders. For example, omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish and nuts can help to protect the brain from inflammation and oxidative stress. B vitamins found in whole grains and leafy greens can improve brain function and reduce the risk of dementia. Additionally, whole, unprocessed foods are typically low in added sugars and unhealthy fats, which can contribute to chronic health conditions like obesity and diabetes that negatively impact brain health. A diet that focuses on whole, unprocessed foods promotes brain health and improve overall mental health and well-being.
2. Refined sugar and carbs
Refined sugars are one of the worst ingredients in modern diets, contributing to adverse mental health and numerous physical ailments. Sugar itself isn’t the problem when it occurs in nature, as fruits, vegetables, and grains have it in various forms. However, when it’s isolated and extracted, sugar becomes more concentrated and lacks the fiber necessary to balance blood sugar. Consuming large amounts of refined sugars can lead to insulin resistance, raising the risk of diabetes and other health problems. Plus, studies show that processed sugars raise cortisol levels, which may result in anxiety and depression.
Processed foods and refined sugars create a chemical imbalance in the brain and trigger inflammation. Your mental health suffers because you’re not getting the nutrients you need to power your mind.
What to eat instead of sugar:
Need to sweeten your tea or coffee? Reach for organic honey. Sweetening with honey is much better for your well-being. Unlike many processed sugars, organic honey is a natural sweetener, free of artificial additives. This means that it can be a healthier alternative for people who want to reduce their intake of refined sugars. In addition, honey contains various beneficial nutrients and antioxidants that can provide health benefits beyond just adding sweetness.
3. Trans fats
Trans fats, a type of unsaturated fat also called hydrogenated vegetable oils, can harm mental health. You can find these fats in foods like margarine, shortening, prepackaged desserts, and frosting. They also occur naturally in meats and dairy products but don’t affect the brain negatively. However, studies show that eating artificial trans fats can lead to depression because they reduce serotonin production.
What to eat instead of trans fats:
Healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish are essential for brain health. These foods contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are the types of fats that are beneficial for the brain. These fats can help to improve cognitive function, memory, and mood by supporting the growth and maintenance of brain cells. For example, omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish like salmon and sardines can help reduce brain inflammation and support new neuron growth. On the other hand, monounsaturated fats found in avocados and olive oil can help to improve blood flow to the brain and reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
Moderate alcohol consumption usually doesn’t cause health problems, but excessive drinking can have devastating consequences. A study found chronic alcohol use can disrupt neurotransmitters, causing mental imbalances such as anxiety, depression, or panic disorder.
Many people drink alcohol to numb or avoid mental pain, but the effects wear off eventually. Then, they’re left with the same feelings they tried to suppress, creating a vicious cycle. Because of this, it’s best to drink socially in moderation and have other coping mechanisms for stress.
What to drink instead of alcohol:
Drinking sparkling water or a mocktail at the next party can be a better choice for mental health than drinking alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant that can affect mood, impair judgment, and decrease cognitive function. But sparkling water or mocktails provide a refreshing and hydrating alternative. You lose the harmful effects of alcohol while still joining the fun!
5. Fried foods
Fried food may taste delicious, but it causes hidden damage to your brain and internal organs. One study found that participants who ate fried foods frequently weren’t as resilient to depression. However, those who ate more fish had the lowest prevalence of depression and other mental health problems. Experts believe that the high amounts of trans fats in fried foods contribute significantly to poor brain functioning.
What to eat instead of fried foods:
Healthy cooking methods like baking, broiling, grilling, and steaming are better alternatives to frying foods. Fried foods can add extra calories and unhealthy fats to your diet, contributing to weight gain, high cholesterol, and decreased brain health. On the other hand, healthier cooking methods can help to preserve the nutrients in foods, reduce the amount of added fats, and promote better overall mental health.
6. Red and processed meats
You have probably heard that overeating red meat could lead to diseases such as cancer. In addition, studies show that red and processed meats may cause mental health disorders like depression. That’s because red meats increase levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-Î±) and interleukin (IL)-6. Also, red meat contains high amounts of saturated fats, which may increase free radical production and inflammation.
What to eat instead of meat:
Vegan alternatives to red meats, like legumes, tofu, tempeh, and seitan, are healthy and beneficial for mental health. While red meats are a good source of protein, they can also be high in saturated fats and cholesterol. That means they can increase health problems. Plant-based protein sources, on the other hand, are typically lower in saturated fats and high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Thus, they promote better overall health (including better cognitive function) and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
7. Caffeine Can Harm Mental Health
Coffee lovers may not want to hear this, but caffeine may cause adverse mental health in some people. One or two cups daily won’t affect your brain. However, studies show that having more than four cups daily could trigger panic attacks. In this case, keep a food journal to document how caffeine makes you feel. You can always cut back to one or two cups if you’re anxious or jittery.
What to drink instead of caffeine:
Feeling sluggish? Try a nice, tall glass of water! Drinking water can help to make you more alert because dehydration can cause fatigue, dizziness, and confusion. When your body is dehydrated, your brain tissue loses water, affecting your cognitive function and making it more difficult to concentrate. You’ll rehydrate your brain and improve mental clarity and alertness with a few big chugs of H2O. In addition, water flushes toxins and improves your overall health, increasing alertness.
Final Thoughts on Foods That Harm Mental Health
Instead of fighting disease, it makes more sense to create wellness in the first place. That way, you don’t have to take expensive medications or suffer from low energy levels. So, knowing what foods to avoid is essential to succeed on your health journey. Generally, eat from nature and avoid processed foods in grocery stores and restaurants.
Trans fats, red and processed meats, refined sugars, alcohol, and carbs create disease in the body and mind. However, fruits, veggies, grains, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats promote wellness, helping ward off mental and physical ailments.