Ever heard the phrase, “You are what you eat”?

While you won’t see humanoid carrots or donuts walking around — the effects that food has on both your body and mind can certainly prove this quote to be true.

For example, have you ever felt groggy or bloated after you ate a greasy cheeseburger or a burrito with tons of queso and mystery meat? Or felt lighter and more energetic after eating a salad or wrap with a side of fruit or yogurt? This isn’t a coincidence.

What we put in our bodies can take a toll on us physically and mentally. But I get it; the struggle is real. It seems cheaper and more convenient to run to the fast food chain down the street and get “the usual” than it is to buy healthy produce at the grocery store right? Not necessarily.

While it may be difficult to curb unhealthy habits — it is possible and is well worth it for the boost it can give your mental health and physical well-being. Not to mention it can also bring about mindfulness.

How Does Food Affect Mental Health?

It may seem strange that what goes on in our gut would have much at all to do with what we feel in our minds. When you break it down though, it makes sense.

Your gastrointestinal tract is a powerhouse of bacteria, which are big producers of neurotransmitters. Those neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, act like little messengers that carry information to your brain. So in a way, your stomach is almost like a second brain. The micro biology involved behind all this is quite intense, the Gastro Center NJ does a good job of explaining it to the non-scientist that want to learn more about this fascinating process. Healthy foods are packed full of good bacteria, which means you’ll feel better from the number of neurotransmitters being sent directly to your brain. Junk food, however, can feed “bad” bacteria and give you a sugar rush. After the rush, you experience a crash, which can cause mood fluctuation and an overall bad feeling.

It’s important to feed your brain the good stuff. Eating healthy can not only improve overall mental health but can also help lower depression, ease anxiety and even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

How to Stick to a Better Diet

I think it’s safe to say that most of us are pretty busy, which can make sticking to better eating habits difficult at times. It doesn’t help that fast food is lurking around every corner and food prep can take a bit of time depending on what you want to make. So as much as we would all love to spend an afternoon living out our fantasies as Rachel Ray, most of us don’t have the time to make a day out of cooking.

However, there are some easy hacks that you can use to keep up with eating a balanced diet and maintaining good mental health. One strategy is by changing your surroundings.

External factors can influence your diet and mental health. One of the best ways to continue healthy eating habits is to surround yourself with good influences, which can be especially helpful for college students.

For example, if you’re at a party, socialize away from the food table to avoid mindless munching. Be selective about where you choose to eat out, and where you choose to sit as well.

Where and what you choose to surround yourself with can make a huge difference in ease of access for healthy foods and, in turn, better mental health.

There are also ways to sneak in healthy snacks or alter cafeteria meals to fit your University lifestyle. If you go to a school that emphasizes sustainability, healthy options may be easier to find.

For instance, the schools listed in the Princeton Review’s Top 50 Green Colleges report, for instance, get 23% of their total food purchases from local or organic sources. If you’re not able to access healthy food, you can always take the meat or protein from the main dish in the cafeteria and add it to a salad for a low-cal alternative.

For full-time employees or recent grads on a budget, it can actually be cheaper to purchase healthy foods over junk foods. If fresh fruits and vegetables tend to go bad before you use them, a great alternative is to go canned or frozen. There’s still plenty of nutritional value, it can keep for a long time, and it’s cost-efficient.

Meal preparation is a time-saving method for people who desire a healthier lunch rather than microwaving sodium-packed Lean Cuisines. Another way to save money while staying healthy is by buying in bulk, which can reduce the need for frequent shopping visits for things like rice, canned food, and frozen veggies.

Stay Green and Stay Clean

If you have days where you slip up, know that it’s okay. Try to remain focused on your goals, and even keep a journal on how you’re feeling after meals throughout the week. That way you’ll be able to track your mental health levels.

You may find ups and downs, but overall you will most likely feel more refreshed than before.

Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is the owner and editor of Productivity Theory, a blog about lifehacking and self-fulfillment. To read more posts by Kayla, you can subscribe to her blog or follow her on Twitter.