What the health: Does diet affect mental health?

13 Nov 2018

does diet affect mental healthIt’s well-known that dieting can be bad for your mental health; in fact, I’ve written previously about how dieting to be skinny won’t make you lose weight and won’t make you happy.

While restrictive dieting may not be good for your mental health, eating can be very beneficial. The more that we learn about the relationship of the gut to the brain, the more evidence we get about the role of nutrition in relation to a raft of mental health issues.

Did you know that people who consume more fruits and vegetables have lower levels of depression than those who eat less fruit and veg? A Canadian study found that a healthy diet can play a potentially important role in the prevention of depression and anxiety.

Nutritional improvements over time (and again, I am talking about a wonderful balance of vegetables, fats, fruits, grains and proteins) may improve how you feel. The ‘happy hormone’ serotonin is made from an essential amino acid called tryptophan which is found in the proteins we eat: for example, in soybeans, meats, dairy, fruits, seeds, and even chocolate. Research has shown that a diet without this essential amino acid can effect mood and memory.

Eating leafy greens and cruciferous veg (including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale) may even help slow cognitive decline. And there are now calls for ensuring a quality diet in teens and pre-teens, as the majority of common mental health problems first appear in adolescence.

It is not all about fruits and veggies, however. Drinking coffee has been associated with decreased risk of cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and even mortality. I can’t tell you how many cups to drink—the ideal cup to day ratio varies depending on outcome—but in most cases around two to seven seemed fine.

Of course, one thing to remember is that averages are only that. You will know your body, and tastes, and what is right for you may differ to what is right for someone else. There may be some benefit in listening to your body, and working out what makes it happy and healthy. This approach is called ‘intuitive eating’, and there is evidence that it can improve health among people who have experienced chronic restrictive dieting and subsequent weight gain and health problems.

Overall, our bodies and our selves (with all that encompasses: our hopes and dreams, our mood, our vitality) are inextricably linked. In fact, many argue they are one and the same. We can make sure that we are at our happiest and healthiest by eating joyfully, to fuel our wonderful bodies, and ensure that we are getting the right mix of foods (and potentially coffees) for us.

Fiona BarlowAUTHOR: Associate Professor Fiona Barlow is a social psychologist who studies intergroup relations, prejudice, and discrimination. Her research aims to understand how experiences of discrimination can disrupt people’s lives, and how to best combat discrimination. Prejudice can focus on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or appearance – but in every case social and political connection and support can buffer people from its harmful effects.