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Food For Thought: How Nutrition Can Impact Mental Health

Nutrition plays an important role in the prevention, development, and management of mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and dementia.

We know about the well-established links between diet and chronic diseases such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and type II diabetes, but did you know about the food-mood connection? Emerging evidence is now finding a connection between diet and mental health.

When you think about it, your brain is the ultimate workhorse, always “on.” Working hard 24/7, taking care of your breathing, movement, heartbeat, and thoughts - even while you sleep. This kind of constant work requires a constant supply of energy, which comes from the foods you eat — and and the quality of the foods fuelling it can make a huge difference to how we feel.

If you think of your brain like an engine, it functions best when it gets high quality fuel. Foods that are high in complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and water, nourish the brain, protecting it from free radicals — or what we call oxidative stress, which is the waste produced when the body uses oxygen, which if accumulates, can damage cells.

Unfortunately, frequent consumption of low quality diets, which are high in processed foods and refined sugars, are harmful to the brain. In addition to reducing the body’s ability to regulate insulin levels, these foods also cause inflammation and oxidative stress, with associations between diets high in refined sugars and impaired brain function, found to negatively affect symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.

Food and Mood

Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter in the body that regulates your appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, and mood. Around 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gut, which is highly influenced by the trillions of “good” bacteria that live there, playing a crucial role in your health. These “good” bacteria protect the intestinal lining and provide defence against “bad” bacteria and toxins, improving nutrient absorption from food, reducing inflammation, and activating neural pathways between the brain and they gut.

Several diets including the Mediterranean and traditional Japanese style diets, have been found to improve mood by supporting a healthy gut and reducing inflammation in the body. Research reported these dietary styles reduced the risk of depression by 25% to 35% compared to those who eat traditional “Western” style diets. The benefits of these diets include that they are high in unprocessed grains, vegetables, fruits, fish and seafood, containing small amounts of lean meats and dairy. Additionally, many of these unprocessed foods are fermented, which act as a natural probiotic, supporting healthy gut bacteria. They also contain no processed or refined foods and sugars, which are high in “Western” style diets.

Are you eating foods that cause anxiety? 

While it is normal to feel occasional worry, excessive anxiety can be debilitating. Often people who suffer from anxiety have trouble shutting off the fight or flight nervous system response, leaving their bodies thinking they are in constant danger. The foods they eat can act as a trigger, affecting mood and increasing the risk of suffering further anxiety. The most important nutritional advice is to reduce the stress responses by keeping blood sugar balanced. The hormones released in response to stress can cause carbohydrate cravings by lowering levels of serotonin, which can cause us to reach for the sweet stuff, like sugary junk foods, leading weight gain, overeating and poor mental health.

How to support your mental health

Being aware of the foods you eat on a regular basis and how they make you feel is an important first step. When the pressure is on, it's difficult not to turn to the sweet stuff for solace and support. But by sticking to a nutritious, nutrient dense diet, you can get yourself out of the vicious cycle, and support your mental health.

Daily nutritional tips to supporting mental health include:

  • Having at least 7 portions of a variety of fruit (x2) and vegetables (x5).

  • Including wholegrain rice, bread, pasta in meals.

  • Enjoying some dairy or dairy alternatives, choosing lower fat and sugar options.

  • Including proteins such as eggs, beans, pulses, lean meats, and fish.

  • Switching to unsaturated oils and spreads, such as olive oil, and using in small amounts.

  • Drinking 6-8 glasses of water a day.

  • Reducing consumption of processed foods, and foods high in refined sugars.  

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