by Tony Gjokaj July 04, 2022 14 min read

My buddy Grant was nearing 600lbs when he decided he needed to make a change. 

He was depressed and angry at where he was going. He knew walking outside should not be painful or exhausting.

That living primarily in his bed and couch wasn’t what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

So he looked for help.

He remembered me in high school and reached out to me after he saw my story on how I battled my depression with exercise, and how I am paying it forward to others.

He reached out to me and I’ve been helping him ever since.

If you’ve been following our show, The Mood Lifters, Grant has lost over a hundred pounds.

He feels healthier, lighter, and happier.

He feels like he’s getting his life back, and it has translated to other aspects of his life as well.

As a result, we created The Mood Lifters Facebook group to help people. Because of this, I decided to get deeper into the exercise for mental health stuff with you all.

Being a Precision Nutrition certified coach, I love their methodologies and coaching process.

In fact, I use a variation of it when it comes to coaching others, and I today, I want to help you with that.

I created this Ultimate Guide To Eating Healthy For Mental Health for you guys.

This guide is focused primarily on those on their mental health journey with the intention to lose weight.

Anyone can use this guide, but I will be speaking to someone that has a few hundred pounds to lose, and that finds difficulty doing things like walking up a staircase without pain.

Let's get into this!

If you'd like to listen while you read, you can watch our YouTube video here.

Nutrition And Mental Health

Something that many of us never think about is the quality of food we put into our bodies. Sometimes, the foods that we consume that give us instant dopamine pleasure are the ones that actually can negatively impact our well-being in the long term.

Research supports that those who tend to eat a diet high in processed foods have anincreased risk of developing depression.

But who doesn’t want to have the occasional ice cream or greasy hamburger?

Hell, I have pizza from time to time.

But here is the thing: this is why it’s so important to understand that moderation is a huge part of this journey.

We should be following an 80/20 rule of the sort: 80% of the time, we focus on whole foods (lean proteins, veggies, fruits, rice, potatoes, etc). 20% of the time, we allow ourselves to indulge.

This will allow us to get the right amount of nutrients in our bodies: to produce the neurotransmitters our brain needs to function, to provide our bodies with the things we need to recover, and to fight back against free radicals.

In this guide, I want you to have this in the back of your mind: Food Mood.

The quality of the foods you consume can impact the quality of our thoughts, our energy levels, and our actions.

Now with that being said, let’s get into this.

Adherence

Before we get into nutrition, the one thing I want you to understand is this:adherence, along with moderation, are the keys to being successful on this journey.

You need to be able to stick with the diet. 

And this differs based on body weight, genetics, physical activity level, culture, and more.

This also means that there is no one best diet: there’s only one diet that works best for you.

And that can change through time.

That may seem overwhelming and a pain that there is no secret sauce. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some basic principles or recommendations we can follow to start with.

One, in particular, I want you to understand is that you can make your diet flexible.

This is YOUR diet.

This means that you have some flexibility in the foods you want to eat. You can also indulge from time to time.

Moderation is key and it is exactly why I among others have been so successful on their journeys.

It may take some time but understand: that you are on a journey to change your current lifestyle. Change in this journey happens best if you make go SLOWLY.

You learn what foods you like and dislike.

You learn what foods sit well with your body and what don’t.

Case Study: Mood Lifter Chris

Chris was the very first Mood Lifter who started his journey with me.

In one of our first talks, he mentioned that one thing he couldn’t live without at this moment in time was soda.

If I told him to remove soda completely, he would find it hard to adhere to his diet.

So we started by telling him to turn his regular soda into zero-calorie diet sodas or Coke Zero. This helped him slowly drop the calories he was consuming. Over time, we started to limit the cans he would drink.

Some would eventually be turned into ½ a can.

Today, he is continuing to practice this, and it's working.

This is only ONE of the adjustments I asked him to make. Another one was focusing on eating more whole foods (which we will discuss further in this post). As a result, we have limited processed foods in his diet.

And Chris is crushing it.

Energy Balance

One of the Laws of Thermodynamics is that energy is not created or destroyed.

It’s transferred.

If you take in more energy than you expend, you will store it (fat, water, muscle gain)

If you expend more energy than you take in, you will release it (fat, water, muscle loss)

In a food consumption case, these are calories.

Energy in and energy out (calories in, calories out) can be influenced by many factors.

What influences the calories that we consume:

  • Stress Levels: When we are super stressed, some of us take in more calories.
  • Our Hunger and Appetite: If we are ravenously hungry, we can end up eating a ton of calories. This sometimes occurs as a result of trying to get rid of too many calories.
  • Mindset and Emotions: Depression for example can make us consume more calories on average (emotional eating).
  • Our Environment: Environmental cues like a chocolate bar on the table can make it very hard to resist.
  • Our Culture: Food preferences and the foods we eat culturally can drive our calorie consumption.

What influences the calories that we expend:

  • Metabolism and Genetics
  • Exercise and Movement: living more actively makes us expend more calories.
  • Stress and Emotions: high-levels of stress or emotions like depression can cause us to expend fewer calories by being more inactive or eating more.

Now that we understand this, let’s explore it further.

Calories And Weight Loss

As mentioned prior, calories determine the rate of weight gain or weight loss.

And your body uses calories as energy for all bodily processes. Restricting too many calories can have a large impact on hormones like testosterone. 

In addition, for those with a lot of weight to lose, restricting TOO MUCH can have a negative impact on our hunger. For example, if we are restricting calories for a 400-600lb male to 2000 calories, it can be VERY difficult for the person to adhere to the diet.

For weight loss, we need to make sure our diet does the following:

  • Allows us to stick to our diet for the long term.
  • Makes us not feel RAVENOUSLY hungry so that we don’t end up binge eating.
  • Facilitates consistent and healthy weight loss (for most, 1-2lbs lost per week is efficient).
  • Ultimately allows us to eat as much as we can while still losing weight. 

All in all, this means that the best diet is the one that works best for you. This also means everyone can get in the best shape of their lives and still enjoy life.

Macronutrients

Macronutrients are the major nutrients that contain energy. These consist of Proteins, Fats, and Carbohydrates.

Each macronutrient also has a specific use for our bodies and helps with things like energy, regulating body temperature, and producing hormones.

Let’s get into each.

Proteins

Proteins are your body’s main building blocks. They produce things like enzymes, hormones, antibodies, and neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin can play a large part in our mental health, and it is important we consume proteins for these to be produced adequately.

Out of all the macronutrients that we consume, protein is one that we recommend consuming throughout the day. This is why you’ll hear things like “you need to eat 4-6 meals per day”.

You don’t need to eat 6 meals a day if it stresses you out.

Proteins are broken down into amino acids which help our bodies in various ways. Because of this, one tip I can give you is to have a diverse amount of protein sources. This will allow you to get multiple amino acids in.

Here are some protein sources to consider:

  • Animal Proteins: Beef, Turkey, Fish, etc. These proteins also can contain healthy fats and minerals like Iron.
  • Plant Proteins: Beans, Legumes, etc. These don’t have a high profile like animal proteins, but they have a good amount of fiber.
  • Protein Powder: One scoop will replace one protein serving. Whey typically has the highest amino acid profile out of both animal and plant proteins.

Fats

Fats are the most energy-dense macronutrient that we can consume. It provides prolonged energy, regulates body temperature, and aids in various hormonal processes.

Dietary fats consist of nuts, seeds, fish, eggs, avocado, and oils (olive, coconut, etc).

For those dealing with depression, one fatty acid that can aid us are omega-3s.For more on omega-3s for mental health, you can read this post here.

Carbohydrates

Last but not least, one of the more controversial macronutrients is carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are used for exercise recovery and performance.

Carbs are known as the “non-essential macronutrient” because our bodies will make them from protein and fat consumption. Because of this, many nutrition myths arise making carbs seem like the bad guy.

However, carbohydrates are also the fastest source of energy transfer in our bodies. Those who are more physically active tend to need more carbs for quicker energy (compared to fats).

While on a diet we recommend carbohydrates be lowered, we don’t recommend getting rid of them completely, especially if you’re very active (blood sugar, nutrients, etc).

Micronutrients

Micronutrients best come from whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and other starches. These foods are typically found in the fruit and vegetable aisles and are easy to spot.

What is great about nutrient-dense foods is that we can eat a large volume of them, be full, and still take in a low amount of calories (one cup of broccoli is around 25 calories).

They also become an acquired taste as well. Once we eat them, we tend to not only like the taste, but the feeling they give us.

Whole foods will give us more nutrients than vitamins and minerals, but we will focus on these in this post.

Vitamins

Vitamins are nutrients that help with repair, digestion, nervous system function, and more.

Some are fat-soluble, which they absorb well with fatty foods like fish. They also stay in our bodies for a longer period of time.

These Vitamins are A, D, E, and K.

Others are water-soluble. We need to consume more of these often because they leave our bodies quicker.

These are B-Vitamins and Vitamin C.

Most vitamins come from various fruits and vegetables. Vitamin D, however, comes primarily from sunlight exposure.

Minerals

Minerals are micronutrients that are good for overall bone structure and other bodily processes.

You’ll know these in the form of calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, and more.

These minerals will come from foods like dark leafy greens (spinach), nuts, seeds, red meat, and more.

Fiber

Fiber helps us feel fuller for longer. Eating them can improve our gut health, reduce the risk of colon cancer, and allow us to have regular bowel movements.

The minimal intake for fiber is around 25g/day. However, it is recommended we shoot for more: for men, 48g/day, for women, 35g/day.

For reference, one serving of most veggies has around 3-4g of dietary fiber in them.

Hydration

Staying hydrated helps us with satiety and overall health. It can help with temperature regulation and even mental health.

According to a 2018 study, people who drank less water had a higher risk of depression and anxiety.

This is why it is essential to stay hydrated!

A good recommendation for most people on average is drinking about 8 cups of water a day.

If we are bigger and weigh more, or we are more physically active, we may need more.

I say a good ballpark to work towards is about a gallon per day.

For more on hydration, you can read our post on the topic here.

Portion Control Methods

Now that we have the macronutrients out of the way, we are going to go into the foundational portion control methods I teach our Mood Lifters about.

Below is a graphic created by Precision Nutrition that highlights the hand portions you use to track our macronutrients and veggies.

Portion Control graphic and methodology made by Precision Nutrition. All credit goes to them here!

For most who start, we recommend these portions:

  • Protein: 1-2 palm servings. One palm size of lean protein is around 20-30g of protein or ~100-200 calories (depending on how much fat is in the protein source as well)
  • Vegetables: 1-2 fist servings. One fist serving can be around 25 calories and is heavily supplied with fiber, vitamins, and minerals (depending on the vegetable type)
  • Carbohydrates: 1-2 cupped handfuls. One cupped handful is around 20-30g of carbohydrates or ~80-120 calories (sometimes more depending on the type of carbohydrate)
  • Fats: 1-2 thumb servings. can be around 7-12g of fats or 60-110 calories depending on the fat source.

For those who have a lot of weight to lose, we recommend usingPrecision Nutrition’s portion calculator to find a foundation to start.

The goal is to shoot to do this for 4-6 meals per day.If you’re just getting started and feel overwhelmed about doing this, I recommend starting one meal a day like this. Then, when you get comfortable, you can add to it.

Build up to it over time. It’s better to have frequent whole food meals every day rather than one or two a week.

Adjusting Portions

Once you start incorporating portion control methods in your routine, you may find that things may start to slow down or stall.

It is super important to understand that firstly, weight loss is NEVER consistent. It can stagnate for weeks at a time, which is why it’s important to stay vigilant in the process.

Here are some things you should consider before making ANY adjustments:

  • Are you following 4-6 whole food meals a day? If you aren’t, make sure you work up to that first.
  • Have you been taking front and back progress pics every 2-4 weeks? This is the best measurement of progress when it comes to weight loss. If you don’t see a weight drop, it can be a variety of things like water, muscle gain, and more. If you look better, keep pushing. The weight loss just might have to catch up.
  • Are you sleeping well? If your sleep has been terrible, do not make any adjustments yet.
  • Are you ravenously hungry? If so, the only adjustments you should make is to add ½ or 1 full carbohydrate servings until you aren’t feeling these effects.
  • How are your energy levels? If your energy levels are terrible, the only adjustment you should make is to add ½ or 1 full carb serving.

You may have noticed that we didn’t talk about the scale. This is because you should not be emotionally attached to a number on the scale.

The scale should be used as a data tracking point - nothing more, nothing less. If you use it, you take a weekly average and monitor your progress like that. If no change, give it another week or so.

If everything is good from the previously mentioned factors, then you have the ability to make adjustments.

Making Adjustments For Carbohydrates

If weight loss is slowing down, I would primarily take servings out of carbohydrates. As our bodies can make them from proteins and fats, it is better to take them from the carbs we ingest.

In this case, proteins and fats are of the highest priority.

Start by removing ~1 carb serving from one meal and assess from there. Taking out one serving is around 100 calories, and that one adjustment should get the ball rolling.

Making Adjustments For Proteins and Fats

I would not make any adjustments in proteins and fats unless you are fairly active.

In that case, I would add more to them.

Ultimately, ask your doctor or physician about any adjustments you need to make in your diet. There may be exceptions for you depending on your overall health.

Nutritional Tips For Mental Health & Weight Loss

We are in the home stretch.

The following are a few tips you can consider when it comes to your nutrition, weight loss, and mental health journey.

LIMIT Processed Foods

The most important tip we can give you to start is to LIMIT processed foods.

Processed foods typically are very calorically-dense and lack the nutrients our bodies need for overall health.

These foods also have a low satiety score, meaning that we need to eat a lot of these foods for us to be satiated or satisfied. This leads to us consuming hundreds and even thousands of calories more than typical.

When we say limit, we don’t mean eliminate, however.

There will be times when you are out and you deserve to treat yourself with ice cream or the juiciest burger at your favorite food place.

Chew SLOWLY

Another tip I would recommend is that you chew your food very slowly. This is because it can take a little bit for your body to let you know that you are getting full.

In addition, I recommend eating until you feel 80% full. Take your fullness cues into consideration because they will help you build awareness around how eating nutritionally-dense foods should feel.

“Free Meals”

I don’t like the term cheat meal because it implies you go off the plan and gorge on calories.

I like the term free meal or planned rewards.

These consist of 1-2 meals a week that you don’t track or monitor. You just enjoy it with family or friends. With these meals, I want you to chew extra slowly and embrace the sweet or nice dessert you treated yourself with.

You’ve earned it, so embrace it.

Tracking Your Food Intake

This can be as simple as a meal checklist or a food journal. Having an awareness piece like this will help you realize what you eat throughout the day, and also what you eat when you’re stressed out.

For example, I find that I tend to stress eat before bed. In understanding this, I try to keep junk food away from the house and I try to stop eating 3 hours before bed.

Eat Your Lean Proteins

Make sure you consistently follow the protein portion recommendations, especially if you’re losing weight.

As mentioned before, protein provides our body’s amino acids which help with various processes in our body.

Protein is also good at keeping you satiated and full.

Make sure you prioritize your protein intake.

Adopt A Mediterranean-styled Diet

Research supports that a diet that follows similar principles to what people in the Mediterranean eat is good for our mental health.

This is because this diet consists of various whole foods, fish, grains, and more. Protein sources like salmon are good for their omega-3 fatty acids. EPA, in particular, has been researched to help reduce the severity of depression.

For more on the Mediterranean Diet, you can check out this website here.

Supplement With Things That Can Help

Supplements are meant to fill any nutritional gaps you need to fill, along with used to get extra support in various areas (ie. workout performance).

Supplements are not mandatory, but they do help for the sake of convenience.

Here are some we recommend:

  • Fish Oil: If you’re not a fan of fish or don’t eat enough, the EPA found in fish oil is good for brain health.
  • Protein Powder: One scoop equates to one protein serving. Whey provides the most complete source of amino acids and tastes good when mixed with oatmeal or cereal. Mix with almond milk for a small ¼ serving of fats.
  • Melatonin & L-Theanine: A synergistic combination that will provide calmness before bed and help you sleep. We created a supplement that contains these, along with magnesium, a mineral we are deficient in.You can get our Mood-Lifting Sleep Supplement, Drift, right here.

Get A Good Night’s Rest

Lastly, shoot for a good night’s rest always. Good sleep can regulate our appetite and our feelings of fullness.

Sleep deprivation can make things worse in regards to energy consumption. Research has shown that those who are sleep-deprived tend to consume more calories on average compared to others.

For more on sleep, you can follow our Ultimate Sleep Guide here.

Food Mood

We have covered a TON in this post: from various types of nutrients, to portion control, and even nutrition tips that can help you out.

I hope this helped you set the foundation for using nutrition as a way to improve your mood and well-being. You deserve to be happy, and the foods you put into your body will very well dictate that.

I wanted to take the time to thank you for reading this post!

If you have any questions, comments, or would like us to go deeper into certain topics, please let me know by direct messaging me on Instagram or our Facebook Group.

Lastly, if you are looking to use exercise as a way to battle your depression, you can grab our free LIFT Your Morning Mood Course here. It’s a great way to start your journey to lift your mood.

Until next time, Mood Lifter!

Tony Gjokaj
Tony Gjokaj

Tony is the Owner of Reforged. He is a PN1 Certified Nutrition Coach and has been in the fitness space for over a decade. His goal is to help millions exercise their way out of depression and anxiety.



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