Vermont Dietitian’s Roadmap for a Mood-Supportive Diet

Is your diet SAD? The Standard American Diet — what dietitians sometimes call “the SAD diet” – might literally make you depressed. That’s because the typical U.S. meal plan is heavy on  refined carbohydrates, sugar, processed foods, and “fast food” packed with artificial ingredients. At the same time, it’s light on whole foods, fiber, healthy fats, and other good-for-you nutrients. For optimal gut health that supports our brain and mood, we need to flip that equation.

That was the central theme in a recent workshop facilitated for COVID Support VT by Susie Polgreen, a registered dietitian and gut-health specialist at Whole Health Nutrition in Colchester, Vt. More than 40 people tuned in virtually to the free hour-long session, “Nutrition, Gut Health and Mental Wellness.” In it, Polgreen laid out a roadmap for cleaning up our sad American diets and making our brains happy by way of a healthy gut.

The Gut-Brain Connection

Just how much the gut influences the brain – and by extension our mood, our thinking, and our behavior – is only recently becoming clear. Scientists now understand that the gut and brain are intimately connected. They talk to each other “all day, every day” through the vagus nerve and biochemical messages. Polgreen said.

The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is home to 100 trillion or so single-celled organisms, mostly bacteria. This is the gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome helps keep things running smoothly, not just in the GI but all over, including the brain. If the gut microbiome gets out of balance, toxins can build up and eventually damage the lining of the gut. Over time, tiny holes may form in the tissue, allowing digestive fluids to leak out of the gut. Some of these toxins can cross into the brain.

“It’s important to recognize the signs of poor gut health,” Polgreen says. Diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain, and acid reflux are typical GI symptoms. Beyond the gut, Polgreen says other symptoms might include skin problems such as rash or eczema, joint pain and “creakiness,” and “intense, almost zombie-like brain fog.” 

From: Food and Mood: Gut Health for Mental Wellness

Gut-Health Busters & Boosters

Polgreen served up practical guidance for keeping the microbiome in balance. That includes what to watch out for and what to add more of into your diet to support gut health. Check the labels of processed foods and watch out for biome-busting ingredients like those below.

Susie Polgreen’s Gut-Health Busters

  • High fructose corn syrup (HCFS)
  • Vegetable and seed oils (e.g., sunflower, safflower, canola, sesame, soybean, corn, cottonseed)
  • Preservatives such as nitrates/nitrates, BHA and BHT
  • Artificial food colorings (Red 40, Yellow 5)
  • Artificial flavorings

The ingredients that you want in your gut come naturally in whole, fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, berries and nuts. But we probably aren’t eating enough of them, Polgreen said. Her list of top gut-supportive foods are packed with nutrients, plenty of protein, and good fats.

Susie Polgreen’s Gut-Health Boosters

Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Found in ground flaxseed, chia seeds, salmon, and walnuts.

Protein/Collagen. Best sources are bone broth and collagen powder. Vegetarian collagen is also available.

Probiotics.* These “good bacteria” are found in yogurt labeled “live active cultures” and anything fermented, such as sauerkraut, kombucha, tempeh, kefir, miso, and kimchi.

Prebiotics.* These foods provide the food for probiotics. Examples are apples, avocadoes, bananas, garlic, asparagus, eggplant, artichokes, legumes, and oats

*Probiotics and prebiotics should not be added to your diet if you have active gastrointestinal issues. Check with your doctor or nutritionist.

Top 5 Mood-Supportive Superfoods

Incorporating whole foods into your diet will support brain health with “premium fuel,” Polgreen told workshop participants. Look for foods high in antioxidants and B vitamins, which repair cellular damage in the brain. Zinc and iron support healthy brain function with essential minerals. Low vitamin D has been implicated in worse Covid outcomes, she said, and it can be hard to get in the winter in Vermont. For this reason, it’s the one supplement Polgreen recommends the most, though she generally prefers food sources over supplements. See her favorites below.

“Feed your brain with the right stuff.”

~ Susie Polgreen, R.D., gut-health specialist

Susie Polgreen’s Top Mood-Supportive Foods

  • Berries. “Total superfood!”
  • Leafy greens. Great for zinc, iron, B vitamins. “Spinach is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet.”
  • Fatty fish, for Omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Tea. “Often overlooked,” but a great source of antioxidants and other brain-friendly substances.
  • Dark chocolate. Must be 70% cocoa or higher for the biggest antioxidant punch.

Polgreen is a big advocate of adding superfoods into your diet wherever and whenever you can. For example, use bone broth instead of water when cooking quinoa or rice. Make smoothies with yogurt or kefir. Add berries to breakfast for a mental boost. Sip green tea in between meals. Pack spinach into smoothies or cook it with eggs or grains. Top burgers and sandwiches with sauerkraut or kimchi. Add chia seeds and ground flaxseed “to everything,” she said. 

Healthy Eating on  a Budget

A lot of supercharged foods are charged more for at the grocery store, which can make it challenging to eat healthy on a tight budget. Nonetheless, Polgreen said nutritious eating doesn’t have to break the bank. She offered some guidance to stretch food dollars without resorting to generally cheaper processed foods.

Look for nutrient-dense foods. Some lower-cost foods that are highly nutritious include dried beans/legumes/lentils, eggs, garlic, onions, sweet potatoes, kale, bananas, flaxseed, oats, and tea.

Buy frozen. Contemporary farming enables fruits and vegetables to be flash-frozen, preserving nutrients at their peak. Frozen produce is often more nutritious than fresh, and almost always less expensive.

Shop the sales. Check your local stores’ sales flyers to buy staples when they’re reduced or produce when it’s abundant and inexpensive.

Organic or conventional? Organic eating can get spendy. The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization, compiles the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists annually based on testing produce for pesticide residue. Polgreen suggests checking them for guidance on when to buy organic.

Learn More and Find Resources

Read Food and Mood: Gut Health for Mental Wellness for more advice from Susie Polgreen.

For an overview of the workshop content, read Why Gut Health = Your Health, on the Whole Health Nutrition blog. 

Find recipes and more guidance on eating for good health at Whole Health Nutrition’s website. You can also book an appointment with Susie Polgreen or another registered dietitian. Many insurance plans will cover up to three visits to a nutritionist.

For a look at the research on the effects of food on mood, read Food and Mood: Is There a Connection? From Harvard Medical School.

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COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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