Keeping stress under control is key to your health and wellbeing—especially in anxious times like these. And while you likely already know some great ways to slash stress—exercise, meditation, and a good night’s sleep, to name a few—experts say there’s one particular way that you may be able to keep calmer by making a minor change to your daily diet.
A new study recommends cutting down on salt and sodium-laden processed foods, which they say could be sabotaging your serenity. Read on to find out how your diet could be undermining your mental health—and what to eat instead.
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According to experts from Harvard Health Publishing, your diet and your stress levels are linked: Eating a poor diet can lead to more stress, and stress can in turn lead to poor diet. They say you can help break this cycle by practicing mindful eating, and choosing stress-lowering foods such as high fiber vegetables and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
“Mindful eating practices counteract stress by encouraging deep breaths, making thoughtful food choices, focusing attention on the meal, and chewing food slowly and thoroughly,” say Harvard experts. They add that it “can also help us realize when we are eating not because of physiological hunger but because of psychological turbulence, which may lead us to eat more as a coping mechanism.”
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A new study conducted by scientists at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland suggests that one food in particular sends your stress levels soaring: salty, processed food. They say that’s because excessive salt intake can lead to heightened production of stress hormones known as glucocorticoids.
“We are what we eat, and understanding how high-salt food changes our mental health is an important step to improving well-being,” Matthew Bailey, PhD, a lead author of the study and professor of renal physiology at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Cardiovascular Science, told Medical News Today. “We know that eating too much salt damages our heart, blood vessels, and kidneys. This study now tells us that high salt in our food also changes the way our brain handles stress,” he added.
Current guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggest that people should aim to consume under 2,300 mg of sodium per day. However, the average American far exceeds that amount, taking in roughly 3,400 mg of sodium per day, warns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, the health authority estimates that nine in 10 Americans consume too much salt overall.
The Edinburgh team says the main culprit and cause for concern is not added table salt, but ultra-processed foods, which often conceal their high sodium content. That’s why they’re calling on government organizations and health authorities to help regulate salt content in pre-packaged foods. “For most governments, this needs to be working with food manufacturers to reduce sodium content in staple food products,” explained Bailey. “The strategies that have worked best have been collaborative partnerships to establish agreed time-dependent targets for reduction, independently monitored,” he added.
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If you do decide to cut down on salt and processed foods, you’re likely to experience a spate of wide-ranging health benefits. According to Lindsay Delk, RD, RDN, the Food and Mood Dietician, cutting back on salt and ultra-processed foods could help you lose weight, maintain a healthy blood pressure, lower your risk of heart disease, and improve mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety.
Delk says cutting these less-healthy options out leaves more room for the foods that best serve your body. “Switching from salty processed foods to more whole foods will increase your intake of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other essential nutrients,” Delk tells Best Life.
Speak with your doctor or nutritionist to learn more about how your diet could be affecting your mood—and what you can do about it.