By Dan England

The moment Heather Gray knew she needed to change her diet didn’t come when she stepped on a scale or went to her doctor. It was when her husband said he didn’t want to be married to an angry person. 

“I was being a miserable bitch,” Gray says. 

She seemed to be born constipated, so much so that her feet would fall asleep from sitting on the pot. Her fellow basketball players called her “BA” on the court, for bad attitude. She was always hungry but didn’t want to eat because she also felt bloated, out of focus and in pain. When she finally got a diagnosis nearly a decade ago, her misery mostly had to do with the foods she was eating, not some weird incurable disease. She had suffered from chronic Lyme disease for 15 years, which caused a lot of her pain, but she also had celiac disease and was lactose intolerant.

Food affects how we feel, but nutritionists such as Gray now know that food also affects how we think, act and navigate the world around us, both physically and mentally.

When Gray felt better but not nearly as good as she thought she would after taking steps to address Lyme disease, she took up a plan from Functional Diagnostic Nutrition and finally had enough energy to get through her day. That inspired her to go back to school and get certified in the program. She now has her own Fort Collins business counseling private clients on their diets and how to eat better and, therefore, think better. 

“I work with people who have been searching a long time,” Gray says. “A lot of them are frustrated. They feel like crap, and when they go to the doctor, they’re told their lab work looks fine, and they feel anything but fine. I know exactly what that’s like.” This frustration spurred Gray to return to school to become a nutritionist.

You are what you eat

Like many things that affect our mental health, how food affects our mood got a bit more attention during the pandemic. Sarah Morales, a clinical dietitian with UCHealth, has studied and presented on this issue, and even she’s learning more about it now. She is not a nutritional psychologist—and that is now a profession—but mental health is a specialty for her. 

“It’s an emerging field,” Morales says. “It’s really important to note that food and nutrition can’t replace medication and therapy. You should look at it as one tool. But the nice thing about it is it’s really empowering. You do have control over what you put in your body, and that definitely plays a role.” 

Such a role, in fact, that Morales and others call your gut “the second brain,” and Gray believes there’s a direct, hardcore link to the way your gut reacts to certain foods and the way your brain operates, whether that’s cognitively or emotionally. 

Diets are individual, of course, meaning the way we react to foods differs from person to person, and allergies and sensitivities may manifest differently even if two people share the same adverse reaction to a specific food. But generally, there are foods linked to positive emotional health and foods that can hurt it, Morales says. The foods on both spectrums probably won’t surprise you.

Both Gray and Morales advocate eating for your gut. Gut health, Morales says, can affect production of serotonin, what many call the feel-good hormone. If you eat to support your gut’s microorganisms and their biome, it’s better for everything, in other words. Foods that are rich in probiotics, like unsweetened yogurt, fermented veggies, fiber and unsweetened Kombucha are good examples of this, and so is a varied diet rich in colorful foods, especially plants. 

There are other foods you can eat that support your emotional health, including foods rich in B vitamins, magnesium, vitamin D and omega 3. And don’t just rely on pills. 

“I like to use a food-based approach rather than just taking a supplement,” Morales says. “Supplements are meant to fill gaps and should be individualized.”

But there are also foods you should avoid. Learning what she couldn’t eat was how Gray turned her life around. You’ve already been told not to eat them, and yet, you probably do, just like most Americans. It’s no wonder the Standard American Diet is called the SAD diet because it can have a profound effect on how we feel emotionally. SAD diets are those high in refined sugar, highly processed foods and trash carbs, such as chips. Processed foods, of course, are the ones with labels that look like science experiments. 

“If you don’t recognize the ingredient on the label,” Gray says, “then neither will your body.” 

We typically take in three times the amount of added sugar we should have every day, Morales says. Natural sugars are OK, but added sugar hurts us. Here’s a good way to think about it: You should eat an orange rather than drink orange juice.

Added sugar, processed foods and other elements of the SAD diet typically cause inflammation, and both Gray and Morales say inflammation is directly related to our mental health.

“If you have a leaky gut,” Gray says, in reference to foods that irritate it, “you have a leaky brain.” 

Whole foods, on the other hand, tend to be anti-inflammatory, so not only are they not adding to the problem, but they’re also chipping away at it. 

It seems so simple, right? Just eat what’s good for you. But if it was easy, as the old saying goes, everyone would do it. Most of us don’t do it. 

The stool strategy 

There’s something you should know about Morales: She LOVES chips and salsa. 

Morales also has a strategy to combat this: She puts the chips on the very top shelf, high enough that she has to get out a stool and stand on her toes to get them. She doesn’t ignore the chips, but she doesn’t eat nearly as many as she would if she kept an open bag on her desk. 

“I really have to want them,” says Morales. 

So even Morales is not a robot. She knows how hard it is to eat well. Our will power, time constraints and energy are all constantly tested, with thousands of easy, cheap and bad solutions waiting. 

“It’s very difficult in our current food environment,” she says. “We have to be very intentional. I work on that for me, and for my clients, on how to structure your life to make it easy.”

Morales also preaches what she calls mindful eating, similar to the intuitive eating you may have heard about. The idea is to pay attention to what you eat and be present when you’re eating it. 

“When do we start eating and when do we stop?” Morales says. “Sometimes we don’t pay attention to that.” Engage and slow down, she says, and try to pay attention to your body’s cues that it’s full. And don’t have chips with salsa at the ready or a candy bowl, which encourages the kind of mindless eating she’s fighting. 

The hunger pains in the mid-afternoon and later at night may come from forgetting to monitor your blood sugar. Eating protein to balance out carbs throughout the day can also help. She, like many dietitians, doesn’t advocate diets and restrictions—“if you tell people they can’t eat chocolate, they will eat chocolate,” she says—but she doesn’t want her clients to randomly shove things in their mouths, either. 

“Before you eat, take a deep breath and a drink of water,” Morales says, “and ask yourself, ‘Am I really hungry?’”

It also helps to keep track of what you’re eating throughout the day. 

Some straying from your plan is inevitable. Gray expressed frustration at clients who know they will feel better if they stick to a plan and don’t do it, but she understands the struggle: Gray, now 43, fell off the wagon, too. She crashed it, in fact. She found her way back last year by addressing the trauma of a divorce and her verbally abusive parents as well as trying to find a solution for her son, who had celiac disease. Once she began to address the trauma, she felt ready to address her diet again. She’s since lost 45 pounds and doesn’t eat gluten, corn or dairy. Her husband, following his own plan, lost 75 pounds. The two go for a walk every night. She’s no longer miserable to herself or to him. 

“I made the most incredible pho for dinner last night,” she says. “We eat incredible. We don’t go without. But I had to start at square one again. Now my brain works. It’s amazing to actually function.” 

Grocery List: Sarah Morales recommends a list of foods rich in vitamins and nutrients that are proven to boost mental health. This list is from the Food & Mood Centre and Mental Health America,