A groundbreaking study, Morbidity and Mortality in People with Serious Mental Illness (PDF), found that, on average, people with severe mental illness die 25 years earlier than the general population.

People with depression or bipolar disorder are about twice as likely to be obese as the general population; in people with schizophrenia, that risk spikes to three times higher. This is in part because so many psychotropic medications cause weight gain. 13% of schizophrenic adults in their 50s have been diagnosed with diabetes, compared to 8% of the general population of the same age. Last, while 22% of the general population smokes, more than 75% of people with severe mental illness are tobacco dependent.

Building a healthy life with positive health outcomes begins with diet and exercise. Healthy eating is not about strict nutrition philosophies, staying unrealistically thin, or depriving yourself of the foods you love. It’s about keeping yourself as healthy as possible. The foods we eat play a key role in maintaining wellness and can conversely play a key role in the onset, severity and duration of mental illness symptoms.

Food choices affect our mood, ability to concentrate and energy level. Caffeine, nicotine, sugar and other stimulants excite the brain. Alcohol is a depressant and many other foods such as some dairy products, rice, and poultry contain high amounts of the amino acid tryptophan, which ultimately makes you sleepy.

Choosing healthy foods is important for mental and physical health. If you make a practice of eating healthily, you’ll have more energy and be more active. This is a natural mood enhancer since exercise boosts serotonin levels. Knowing how different foods affect you can be a great tool in managing your wellness. If you’re feeling sluggish, a snack of complex carbs and lean protein — like low-fat cheese and whole grain crackers or whole fruit and a handful of nuts — are ideal munchies for energy. A good night sleep is a critical part of maintaining emotional health so if you’re struggling to getting adequate rest, try having a turkey sandwich and a glass of milk about an hour before you go to bed. Nearly all good advice on eating for general physical health is equally true when eating for general psychological health:

  • Eat a variety of nutrient rich foods. Your daily food selection should include bread and other whole-grain products; fruits; vegetables; dairy products; and meat, poultry, fish and other protein foods.
  • Enjoy plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.Experts recommend 6-11 servings of carbs, 3 of which should be whole grains; 2-4 servings of fruit and 3-5 servings of vegetables. If you don’t enjoy some of these at first, give them another chance.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. The weight that’s right for you depends on many factors including your sex, height, age, heredity and medication side effects.
  • Eat regular meals. Skipping meals can lead to out of- control hunger, often resulting in overeating. When you’re very hungry, it’s also tempting to forget about good nutrition.
  • Reduce, don’t eliminate, certain foods. Most people eat for pleasure as well as nutrition. If your favorite foods are high in fat, salt or sugar, the key is moderating how much of these foods you eat and how often you eat them.
  • Balance your food choices over time. When eating a food high in fat, salt or sugar, select other foods that are low in these ingredients. Your food choices over several days should fit together into a healthy pattern.
  • Introduce exercise into your life. Exercise 30 minutes or more is recommended 3-5 times per week. Walking, taking the stairs, playing with your children, stretching daily, even house cleaning are free ways to improve your range of motion, improve your mood, increase energy levels, strengthen muscles and help you lose weight.
  • Quit smoking or don’t start. Smoking increases risks of cancer, heart disease and offer other complications. While tobacco may provide short-term relief to mental health symptoms, its long-term impacts are devastating.
  • Make changes gradually. Don’t expect to totally revamp your eating habits overnight. Changing too much, too fast can get in the way of success. Remedy excesses or deficiencies with modest changes that add up to positive, lifelong eating habits.