For athletes, diet is a huge part of strength, agility, muscle recovery, endurance, and overall physical performance. But what if I told you that, as important as food is for physical fitness, it plays just as important of a role in mental fitness as well? Mental fitness equips athletes with focus, drive, resilience, and perseverance. I’m sure you’ve had a coach or fellow athlete use the term ”mind over matter” as motivation to get through the rest of a workout or game, and while good physical health is paramount for athletic success, having the mental discipline to dig deeper is often what sets the most successful athletes apart.
As a nutritional psychiatrist, I teach the following six pillars of nutritional psychiatry to optimize my patients’ emotional well-being. These pillars also have the potential to enhance mental fitness and improve athletic performance.
- Be Whole, Eat Whole: Following an 80/20 rule allows for dietary discipline with some flexibility. Focus 80% of the diet on whole, real foods with plenty of fiber, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and healthy lower-glycemic whole grains, healthy fats as well as quality, well-sourced clean protein. The remaining 20% allows for leeway in enjoying life as it comes. Much like athletes need rest days to give their bodies a break, we all need space in the diet for some food freedom to create the most sustainable lifestyle changes. Adopting the mindset of this lifestyle also allows those regularly involved in competitive activities to accept the losses, celebrate the wins, and move on.
- Eat the Rainbow: Different colored plant foods contain different brain-boosting nutrients, so in order to optimize the nutrient quality of your diet, be sure to eat the rainbow! A diet rich in diverse plant-based foods contains plenty of fiber to support a healthy and thriving microbiome, which supports a healthier body and mind. New research suggests athletes who nurture their microbiome with a variety of fiber-filled plant foods, clean protein sources, and healthy fats such as omega-3s have strong performance outcomes. The authors of this study suggest athletes strive to “fuel their microbes” in order to best fuel their performance. Similarly, such a diet helps repair tissue, keep inflammation down, and keep mental focus sharp! A happy gut also supports a physically and mentally fit athlete!
- Greens for the Gold: We all know greens do a body good, and in nutritional psychiatry, we know greens do a mind good too! Folate has been associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms and overall improved cognition, which supports a motivated and clear mind. Interestingly, leafy greens are also abundant in dietary nitrate, which has been suggested to enhance exercise tolerance and overall performance. Therefore, science tells us including plenty of leafy green vegetables (I suggest 4-6 cups a day) may not only improve our mental endurance to push through but our physical endurance as well.
- Tap Into Your Body Intelligence: An important aspect of mental well-being is mindfulness: the capacity to acknowledge how things make you feel and act accordingly. Much like you would not continue doing a certain exercise if it was causing you pain or injury, you shouldn’t be continuing to eat foods that don’t make your body and mind feel its best! If you notice your body feeling heavy or less agile after a more processed or nutrient-poor meal, if you feel like you’ve lost all your energy halfway through a workout and can’t find the motivation to push through after a sugary meal, keep that in mind next time you’re making a food choice. If something doesn’t make you feel good or perform well after eating it, there are likely better dietary choices out there. Pay attention to your mental health symptoms, your feelings of motivation and perseverance, and your physical body in response to various foods and use this body intelligence to guide you.
- Consistency and Balance Are the Key! Much like athletics require consistent practice and disciplined training, optimizing mental fitness through the diet is a journey that takes dedication and time. To build lasting mental well-being and support a lengthy athletic career, create sustainable dietary and lifestyle changes rather than falling into quick fixes or miracle diets. By following the 80/20 rule, as described in pillar one, consistency becomes less intimidating and lifestyle changes are longer lasting.
- Avoid Anxiety-Triggering Foods: Did you know inflammation is one of the root causes of both anxiety and physical injuries? When inflammation occurs in the gut as a result of added/refined sugars, processed foods, and industrial seed oils (soy, corn, and grapeseed), the mind becomes overwhelmed, stressed and anxious. Similarly, this stress is manifested throughout the body, preventing proper muscle recovery and joint health, which puts athletes at a significantly increased risk of acute and chronic injuries. When nutrient-poor foods, such as those typically composing the SAD diet (standard American diet) are replaced with an abundance of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats (especially omega-3s), and proteins, the gut calms down, and stress is relieved within the body and mind. This allows for added focus in training and mental discipline and supports the pursuit of peak physical potential.
The body and mind are not independent, and more and more we are seeing movement toward addressing the two as one. For athletes, specifically, this notion of mental fitness supporting physical fitness is so important for optimizing performance and athletic longevity. Nutritional psychiatry provides the pillars to begin this journey toward becoming one’s physical and mental best self.
Dr. Uma Naidoo is a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, and nutrition specialist. She is the author of the national bestseller “This Is Your Brain on Food.” Article original posted on CrossFit.com.