Food, Mood and Health – How Food Effects Our Mental Health

Navigating the food world can be tricky for many, especially since there always appears to be so many rules and suggestions around what to eat, when to eat it, and how much is too much. There are also the various cultural components that are much more personal and community specific, along with work and family obligations many have to balance. For some, food simply boils down to getting calories in the body in order to make it through the day. Period.

Food journalist and writer Michael Pollen has a famous quote-

“Eat Food, Not Too much. Mostly Plants.”

It is so simple and straightforward, and the “less is more” quality is exemplar of what so much of Chinese Medicine lives by. However, in this article we would like to break it down just a bit more, discussing what different food groups and ingredients can do, how they can support or harm the body, as well give a few “tricks of the trade” to support the specific ailments that you struggle with, by just making a few changes in the diet. 

Although many have the knowledge that food likely does play a factor in one’s general wellbeing, many are also unaware of how much food can hurt or help one’s overall mental health. There is never a one size fits all, and therefore, everyone needs to take the time and personal attunement to listen to the way in which their body responds to the multitude of macro and micro nutrients to discover what works for one’s specific physiology. Below provides a general “roadmap” that can support you in making the most appropriate choices for you and your mental and physical health.

A few factors to consider:

  1. Processed food:

When anyone is struggling with any form of inflammation in the body, whether that is manifesting as pain or mood irregularities, begin by first omitting all forms of processed food. If you are someone who has the privilege to live and shop at a local farmers market and primarily get your groceries there, this segment might not necessarily pertain to your lifestyle choices.

What is processed food? It is essentially anything in a box, a wrapper, or contains more than one to five ingredients if you are purchasing it from the store. Most “culprits” of processed food can be found in the common supermarket aisle. Although it isn’t just cereal, candy bars, and white bread. “Processed” also pertains to ketchup, tortillas, cheese, meat, chips, crackers and most dips. It’s important to always read the ingredients as this will specify how the product is being made for the shelf-life in which it was dated. The major “flags” of a processed food item are canola oil, vegetable oil, aspartame, enriched flour, corn, artificial color, “natural” flavor,  added sugars (cane sugar, dextrose, maltose, syrups), sodium, and maltodextrin, to name a few. 

The easiest and simplest of ways to omit any of these variables from one’s diet is to make your major purchases from the peripheries of the grocery store, filling up one’s cart mainly with vegetables, fruits, fresh fish, organic meats, nuts, seeds and legumes. If you are someone who eats grains, organic is best, staying away from gluten as much as possible, with a preference for rice. If you are a sweets lover, dates, organic local honey and dark chocolate, with a preference for coconut sugar, would be excellent alternatives. Do your best with what you have always!

  1. Dairy

There are varying ranges of sensitivities to dairy. Some people can have a little, where others can’t have any at all. Many experience GI trouble when it comes to milks, cheese, and at times even butter. This can show up as loose or constipated stool, stomach pain, and gurgling sounds, as well as excessive gas. However, what is often not spoken about at greater length is how dairy has the potential to alter one’s mood. If you have an unknown origin of depression, or actively working on your mental health and feel episodes of depression periodically creep in, omitting dairy can be the next step to your mind and body wellness regime. Give it a full week and take note as to how this translates to your energy overall.

  1. Gluten

It might come at no surprise to many of our readers and patients that gluten is on the list. It’s hard to walk into a grocery store these days without being bombarded with the next “gluten-free” product. In navigating this world, we encourage people to be cautious of many of the products touted as “gluten-free. While they might not contain gluten, perse, these products still fall under the first category of this list, as they are highly processed and generally loaded with sugars.

Gluten itself deserves a different conversation. Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in wheat, barley and rye.  Those that have been diagnosed with celiacs have to be very careful, as this is a severe allergy. Many more will fall within the zone of being “gluten sensitive” having stomach sensitivities similar to dairy or “Grain Brain”—brain fog, mental fatigue or down right exhaustion.  Eliminating gluten for a week or two to test whether or not you are sensitive to gluten can be a great way to gauge how you do without it, and if it’s better off left out.


There are many reasons to avoid processed sugar, with the main being blood sugar, brain health, energy, and mental health. If you are someone that experiences periods of mania with periods of depression, sugar might be the first to begin experimenting with removing. It also appears to be in everything these days and, therefore, has become very tricky for patients to avoid. Sticking to the same “rule of thumb” that we suggest for eliminating processed food to also omitting sugar is the best recommendation, as this avoids needing to read many labels to determine whether or not there is added sugar. Condiments are often full of sugar, however, as more people become increasingly mindful about their diet, there are more alternative options showing up in this department, allowing you to get ketchup, mayo, hot sauce, and others without the sugar (if you are not making them at home).

We know that making diet changes can be hard and extra support is often needed for staying on track, as well as rewiring minds out of their mental habituations. Acupuncture is a wonderful way to begin to support a shift in mindset, as it helps to regulate the nervous system. By regulating the nervous system it gives people the opportunity to become more intune, being able to better listen to what their body needs, how it responds, and what its preferences are with each food choice. 

All of us at Ballard Acupuncture Center would love to be your support system and gently help in guiding you back to a place of feeling optimal. 

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