The Secret to Being Mentally Strong May Be Hidden in Your Food

Thrive Global

If you want to improve your mental health, go Mediterranean.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered so many mental health issues in my practice, ever, until this year. Here’s just a sampling of what I hear from my patients, friends, and family on the daily:

  • “I’m very stressed.”
  • “I can’t sleep.”
  • “I’m very snappy with my family.”
  • “I don’t like who I am.”

The list continues, and you may have found yourself sharing some of these sentiments during the pandemic. As these personal issues multiply, I’ve also struggled controlling diabetes numbers in my patients, and blood pressure readings are showing signs of stress. It is all understandable, but I want you to know that there is one thing you can do to help yourself before you end up in the doctor’s office.

It’s taking a step back, and really looking at your food choices. Yes, paying attention to what you are eating!

COVID-19 and your mental health

According to the CDC’s guidance on coping with stress, they acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing stress. People are fearful and anxious because this is a new disease with a lot of unknowns. The vaccine might be here, but we are still far from it being over. Public health actions such as social distancing can make people feel isolated and lonely, which can increase stress and anxiety. If I had to place a bet, the impact of COVID-19 and related mental stress, will result in a large number of people being diagnosed with PTSD when this is all over.

Stress can be detrimental to your financial health, sleeping or eating patterns, concentration, chronic health problems, mental health and potential substance use.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), fear, worry, and stress are normal responses to perceived or real threats, which makes sense in the context of a global pandemic where you cannot tell if someone has the virus just by looking at them.

I don’t want to make you feel even worse about living in 2021. Instead, I am here to tell you that there are ways we can make the situation better by controlling some other variables in our lives. While the crisis isn’t going away tomorrow, one of the most simple ways to enhance your lifestyle is to change the way you eat starting today. It’s not just me saying this either; there is plenty of evidence-based research out there to support this.

Eating and your mental health, according to science

In a study published in Nutritional Neuroscience, researchers investigated two groups. One group, let’s call them the “Med diet group,” was given food hampers and training on how to cook Med diet during workshops for three months. The other group, let’s call them the “social group,” attended social gatherings for three months where they did not receive workshops on the Med diet.

In the study, the Med diet group reported significantly greater improvements in depression symptoms and overall mental health, compared to the social group. Improvements in a range of mental health outcomes were significantly correlated with improvements in diet, most notably for greater diversity of vegetables and fruit, and intake of legumes. This also included reduced consumption of unhealthy snacks, takeaway food, and meat.

Another study called the SMILES trial, published in BMC Medicine, examined the dietary improvement of adults with major depression. It found that when people significantly improved their intake of whole grains, fish, fruit and other key food groups, they reported improved mental health.

The results from both of these studies, as well as many more, show that a way to improve your mental health can be as simple as improving your diet. So the next time that you are feeling down, receive bad news, or feel depressed, don’t reach for the cookie jar or freezer. Stop, and remember that though cookies and frozen treats may seem to make you feel better in the moment, they are not working towards helping you feel good in the long term.

I recommend keeping your pantry or fridge stocked with snacks that are simple, whole foods, such as whole grain crackers and sustainably caught sardines.

What you eat has a massive impact on your mental well-being. It’s not easy to change habits, but the science shows that when you do, and actually feel better, those cookies and ice cream might seem less of comfort food, and more like a mental poison.

Science shows a clear connection to eating habits and mental health, and I want you to understand how simple and powerful this connection is.

A solution hiding in plain sight

As a primary care physician, 2020 has been especially taxing for me. In addition to caring for my patients, I have had friends and families reach out to me constantly about how they can stay safe from COVID-19. Many of them express being overwhelmed, as well as their anxiety and stress, associated with the many challenges of 2020.

I’m not a psychiatrist, so many times I feel ill-equipped to treat all the anxiety and depression I see around me. When I explain simple steps that they can take to be their healthiest, then often react like, “Really, it’s that simple?” To which I reply, “Yes!”

The most common advice I give is to mind what you eat. The solution for your health might be right in front of you. Hiding in plain sight, at the market, in your fridge, and on your plate!

You don’t have to make expensive food for it to taste good!

I love cooking fresh, healthy foods of all colors of the rainbow for my family. The other day I made a delicious salad using lettuce, cucumber, radish, beets, parsley, a dressing made from Greek yogurt, tahini, lemon, and garlic. To be honest, my boys still prefer potato chips over healthy alternatives, but they are slowly getting used to seeing more veggies on their plates. There are numerous delicious dishes you can make that use just a few ingredients. If you want a real-world example, I published a blog post recently on Thrive Global about how I make the Mediterranean diet work for my family.

Changing your lifestyle doesn’t have to be tough. I advise my patients, friends, and family to do so in baby steps. Or maybe a better analogy would be one bite at a time!

First, try to eliminate one or two processed or takeout meals a week and replace them with dark, leafy greens as a main or a side, or a pasta dish loaded with zucchini, peppers and other fresh vegetables. Even simpler, swap the vegetable oil in your house with Italian-pressed olive oil!

I am here to share that your mental and nutritional health are closely linked. So if you feel that this pandemic is causing you more mental stress for you and your family, then go Med diet!

In conclusion

Not only is there solid research being conducted on the Mediterranean diet that reveals that it can help with your mental state, but these dishes are flavor-rich and good on your stomach. By simply adding a couple new meals to your diet that replace some of the less-healthy ones, you’ll be on your way to a happier you.

If you want to bring me (virtually) to your company or event to help show how great things start with great food, email me at If you have questions about how to get started with the Mediterranean lifestyle, I’d love to help! Tweet me @ReyzanShali to find out what I’m cooking this week and ways to stay healthy during the pandemic.

Reyzan Shali

I’m a primary care physician, board certified in Internal Medicine, and practicing in the San Diego area. I’m a mother, wife, sister, aunt, and friend. But first and foremost, I’m a proud Kurdish daughter of two great Kurdish parents from the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

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