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questioner: You said that proper nutrition can help with physical, mental, and emotional steadiness, or physical, mental, and emotional stability. Does this mean that what I eat affects not just my physical health, but also my mental health? And if so, what should I eat?

dr-robert: While the old saw that says, "you are what you eat" may be a bit exaggerated, the food, water, and other substances we consume can have profound effects on physical, mental, and emotional wellness (or the lack of wellness that, when it goes far enough, we call "illness").

Everybody is different, and every body is different, so without a private consultation, I cannot give you person-specific advice about what you might like to add to your daily intake, and what you might like to subtract, but I will offer some general principles that can help almost anyone. If you do make changes in what you eat, drink, and otherwise consume, please bear in mind that you might have to stay with a change for several weeks before being able properly to evaluate the results.

Evidence continues to mount up suggesting that the foods we eat have powerful psychological effects, so if you are not feeling calm and happy, and if you are feeling that something has to change, some dietary changes are a good place to begin.

Here are some changes to try:

1. In my view the most important change is to increase the quantity of fruits and vegetables in your diet. These foods, which really ought to be the basis of a healthy diet, not side dishes or garnishes, contain precious micronutrients such as flavonoids (plant pigments) that affect brain function, improve the efficiency of every cell in the body, and protect against heart troubles, cancer, and numerous other serious aliments. For example, the old adage that says, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away," turns out literally to be correct: quercetin, a powerful antioxidant especially abundant in apples (as well as in onions and black tea), immediately begins healing the entire human organism whenever it is present in the diet. To see what this means on a practical level, take a look at this article from called An Apple a Day for Cancer Prevention. Other fruits and vegetables contain different micronutrients which are vitally important also for physical, mental, and emotional balance. A vitamin pill cannot supply these vital elements. Since the different colors of fruits and vegetables indicate different types of micronutrients, both antioxidants and others, aim for a wide variety of color in your diet. If you choose your foods from this list of the world's healthiest foods, and learn how to store and prepare them here, you can't go wrong. Take a look too at this list of the top twenty antioxidant foods:

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2. Second, and also extremely important, is to replace as much as possible of the fats and oils in your diet with olive oil. There are many reasons to make this healthy change, but one reason is simple: the monounsaturated fats in olive oil "burn clean" in the body so that the arteries stay open and flexible. In fact, changing to olive oil can even reverse in some cases damage done by over consumption of the wrong fats. Those fats are "wrong" for the body because they do not burn clean, and consuming them on a regular basis gradually coats the arteries with sticky plaque, narrowing these blood vessels and thereby slowing circulation. Bill Clinton's recent quadruple bypass surgery demonstrated this for all to see; he was a junk food addict. Since good circulation is the very bedrock of health, there is little doubt that making this change can make a huge difference in how one feels.

Further, recent research suggests that fresh extra-virgin olive oil contains a compound that helps fight inflammation in a way similar to such anti-inflammatory drugs as ibuprofen. Since the most up-to-date medical opinion holds that chronic low-grade inflammation and its accompanying rise in C-reactive protein levels seems to put otherwise healthy people at risk for such ailments as heart disease, arthritis, stroke, and many others, making olive oil the main source of fat in the diet--and this is the chief feature of the so-called "Mediterranean diet"--becomes even more advisable.

To adopt this more conscious approach to eating means, for example, that you would use olive oil, not butter, lard, or any other vegetable oil, besides perhaps avocado oil, or canola oil, to grease a skillet, to fry foods, etc. If you make tuna salad, for example, you would buy water pack tuna (to avoid consuming the low-grade vegetable oil that the canners use to pack tuna), and, instead of mayonnaise, you would use olive oil to prepare the salad. If you simply love the flavor of mayonnaise, use less, and make up the difference with olive oil. If you like bread and butter, try dipping the bread in a small bowl of olive oil flavored with herbs and garlic instead. Or, since avocado oil, while peerhaps not quite as beneficial as olive oil, is also good, substitute avocado for most or all of the butter, and at least some of the cheese you are used to eating.

This also means, I should point out, that you aim at sticking to low fat dairy items as much as possible (the olive oil you consume will provide the fat in much healthier form than butterfat), that you cut down on, or eliminate, fatty meats (replacing them with fish is a great idea). In other words, the aim is to replace questionable sources of fats and oils, with a substance, olive oil, which has known benefits.

Particularly urgent is to avoid foods made with what are called "trans-fats." These are absolutely harmful to mind and body, and are used only so that packaged foods can stay "fresh" for years on the shelf. The label will usually indicate trans-fats as "partially hydrogenated," although that is not always true of Mexican products. It's worthwhile reading the labels of all packaged foods since many of them are filled with various poisons put there not for the health of the human body but for the convenience of the manufacturers.

You don't have to allow the food manufacturers to dump this stuff into your personal ecosystem, your body. If you like microwave popcorn, for example, buy regular popcorn, not that poisonous concoction in the "microwave bag." Corn will pop just fine in an ordinary paper bag with a couple of small holes punched to allow steam to escape. Then you can flavor it with olive oil, garlic, grated cheese, etc.

3. Add flax seed to your daily diet. This is sold widely in Mexico as linaza. Two or three tablespoons daily is a reasonable amount. Linaza is relatively inexpensive, tastes good--a kind of nutty flavor--and can be sprinkled on raw or cooked food with no problem. Studies have demonstrated antidepressant effects with regular use of flax seed. Also, the omega-3 fatty acids in flax are highly beneficial, being needed in the regulation of all biological functions.

4. Add salmon oil to your diet. This oil is available in capsule form and can be used daily. The proper dosage, according to Dr. Barry Sears is about four capsules daily. Dr. Sears believes that salmon oil is a "miracle drug" which benefits the body and mind in numerous ways, including preventing several serious diseases, and affecting mood positively. Like flax, salmon oil also contains omega-3 fatty acids.

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I could go on, but this is sufficient information to begin experimenting with conscious attention to diet. If you try this out for a few weeks, I imagine you will feel increased energy, and a noticeably lighter mood.

Drop another line, and let me know how it is going for you.

Be well.

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Todos Santos Counseling, Therapy, and Depth Psychotherapy

Todos Santos, Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico

last modified November 18, 2007

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