Diet and mental health

The body of evidence linking diet and mental health is growing at a rapid pace, as well as the impact of diet on short and long-term mental health. Laleh Lohrasbi explains

We all know that there are some foods which are good for reducing cholesterol levels or controlling high blood pressure, or even foods which can help people have stronger bones or hair. However diet and nutrition have a much bigger role in a person’s life, in both physical and mental aspects.

“You are what you eat”, is not just a saying, it is in fact very true. What we eat can determine how we feel but how we feel can also determine what we eat. The body of evidence linking diet and mental health is growing rapidly. As well as its impact on short and long-term mental health, the evidence indicates that food plays an important role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease. People with mental health problems are more likely to have a weight problem; some always feel tired and just not up to any activity while others always feel hungry.

Nearly two thirds of those who do not report daily mental health problems eat fresh fruit, fruit juice, fresh vegetables and salad every day, compared with less than half of those who do report daily mental health problems. Those who report some level of mental health problem also eat fewer healthy foods (fresh fruit and vegetables, organic foods and meals made from scratch) and more unhealthy foods (chips and crisps, chocolate, ready meals, sugary drinks and takeaways).

Overconsumption of sugar alone can negatively impact people’s mental health. In a sample of 5,498 youth aged 15-16 in Oslo, Norway, researchers found a strong association between sugary soft drink consumption and mental health problems. In a related study among adolescents aged 12-19 in Jiangsu Province, China, researchers found a positive association between consumption of sugary soft drinks and sweet foods and risks for suicidal behaviours. Food and the chemicals in our brains interact to keep us going throughout the day. For example, carbohydrates increase serotonin, a brain chemical that has a calming effect. Perhaps that’s why people often crave carbohydrate-rich foods when they are under stress. Protein-rich foods increase tyrosine, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which help to increase alertness. In addition, certain healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acids) become part of the membranes of brain cells and control many brain processes. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish and fish oil, are beneficial to neural functioning. Researchers have found that fish oil may prevent progression of psychosis in high-risk youth aged 13-25.

Vitamin D is another supplement that can positively affect mental wellbeing. Multiple studies have linked vitamin D deficiency to cognitive impairment, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Therefore, many mental health professionals and physicians recommend a regular intake of vitamin D.

A bigger brain means more cells. At about 40- 45, our brains begin to shrink giving rise to some mental health issues like insomnia and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have shown that people who eat a diet based on colourful plant foods, seafood and whole grains, with the omission of processed foods, have bigger brains at the age of 60 to 65 and their brains shrink at a slower rate.

A high protein diet may also be helpful for ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Beans, cheese, eggs, meat, and nuts can be good sources of protein. Eating these kinds of foods in the morning and for after-school snacks improves concentration and possibly makes ADHD medications work for longer. Protein triggers alertness-inducing neurotransmitters in the brain. Depending on their age, children need between 24 to 30 grams of protein a day. Adults need 45 to 70 grams. A cup of milk or soy milk, one egg, or an ounce of cheese or meat contain seven grams of protein.

While nutrient deficiencies are usually rare certain deficiencies may also have effects on mental health. Thiamine (vitamin B1), which is found in legumes, some seeds, and fortified grains, is necessary for maintaining energy supplies and coordinating the activity of nerves and muscles. Thiamine deficiency can therefore lead to weakness, irritability, and depression. Folate (vitamin B9), which is found in leafy greens, legumes, and fortified grains, is essential for supporting red blood cell production, helping to prevent homocysteine build-up in your blood, and allowing nerves to function properly. Folate deficiency can result in depression, apathy, fatigue, poor sleep, and poor concentration.

food plays an important role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Extensive reviews of the benefits of nutrition and diet on mental health suggest that one’s diet should: contain a wide array of multicolour fruits and vegetables, some fish, with preference given to cold deep-seawater fish and reduction of sugary drinks and  excess calories,. Implementation of these dietary changes could result in improved mental well-being. However, before making any dietary changes, speaking with a doctor is recommended. Good nutrition is an important component of an improved mood and an increased sense of wellbeing but it is not a substitute for medical care.

While what we eat can have a significant impact on how we feel, when we eat is equally important. Often the low energy levels that people feel throughout the day are a result of poor meal timing. For example, eating patterns that involve skipping meals may contribute to mood swings by causing fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Food restriction can lead to binge eating, bigger emotional responses, poor concentration, increased stress, and an overall lower sense of well-being. Depression has been shown to develop in people with disordered eating who frequently restrict food. The optimal way to fuel your body is to space meals and snacks 3 to 4 hours apart and choose a healthy protein and carbohydrate source at each meal.


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