The motto “you are what you eat” rings true in terms of mental health. Alongside exercise, diet and nutrition play an important role in protecting and improving mental health and wellbeing. Common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression can be improved by attending to lifestyle factors, including diet and nutrition. In this blog, we will digest some of the research showing how diet and nutrition can impact our mental health. We'll consider which foods provide efficient fuel for our bodies and minds, and how we can eat to benefit from the win-win scenario of eating and training for positive mental health.
Food for Thought:
The word diet comes from the Greek word diaita, meaning “a way of life”. Eating to support mental health and wellness is not a one-off event. Rather, it is an ongoing matter of consuming a balanced diet, containing a wide variety of foods in the right proportions. Our brain is an organ that requires different amounts of nutrients for optimal functioning. Complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water are all required by our brain for positive mental health. Ongoing deficiencies of nutrients can contribute to low mood, depression, anxiety and poor sleep.
Foods that Support Mental Wellbeing:
Research from the University of Warwick shows that vegetable consumption is associated with high levels of mental wellbeing. Vegetables are high in the various micronutrients our system needs to help convert food into the fatty acids and amino acids our body and brain needs. Oily fish has also been found to have a positive effect upon mental health because it is rich in fatty acids.
Nuts, seeds, eggs, bananas, and whole grains are all rich sources of micronutrients supporting mental health and wellbeing. We know that people who are deficient in micronutrients are at greater risk of mental health problems. For example, insufficient omega three and omega six fats in the diet have been linked with depression and memory problems. An increased consumption of these fatty acids has been shown to be helpful in the control of bipolar disorder.
Foods that Hinder Mental Wellbeing
We've considered foods that support positive mental health and wellbeing. Let's take a look at foods that can have a negative effect upon brain function. It's been found that foods high in saturated fat, refined carbohydrates and processed food products are linked with poor mental health in children and adolescents. Another study found that people who replaced diets high in essential fatty acids, with more processed foods, experienced higher levels of depression. A diet that includes a reduction in processed foods, saturated fat and refined carbohydrates is likely to offer mental health benefits. And of course, limiting alcohol intake is a smart idea if we want to take care of our mental health. Many people are aware of the negative effect of alcohol upon both physical and mental wellbeing. The depressant effect that alcohol produces can interfere with mood and sleep patterns.
It's important to mention that some mental health issues revolve around food. Disordered eating can be a form of mental illness. It’s important that professional medical advice is sought if you recognize signs of disordered eating, including severely restricting calories intake, or exercising to excess in response to calorie intake, purging or emotional eating as a form of self-medication.
Nutrition for Training:
Physical activity is an important lifestyle factor supporting emotional wellbeing and mental health. It's important then to ensure our body receives high quality nutrition to fuel workouts and training sessions. Eating balanced meals and exercising a few times a week can make all the difference to our mental health. Eating well to support and fuel workouts is a virtuous cycle that is likely to have positive impacts upon our mental health.
Nutrition Choices for Health and Wellbeing:
Let’s take a look at a top tip to move towards a balanced diet that provides the nutrients we need for positive physical and mental and emotional wellbeing:
- B-on Top Form:
Foods rich in B vitamins are important for our mental health. A deficiency of B vitamins can lead to poor concentration, depression, irritability, and even psychosis. Food sources of B vitamins include whole grains, vegetables, bananas, meat, fish, dairy products and eggs.
- Eat Your Greens:
The deficiency in folic acid has been associated with increased anxiety and depression. Green leafy vegetables are a great source of folic acid and also supply our body and brain with magnesium which can help to reduce symptoms of insomnia.
- Add Garlic:
Another important mineral for physical and mental health is selenium. Our muscles contain this micronutrient and it thought that a deficiency of selenium can contribute to muscle exhaustion. It also supports our immune system and helps to prevent irritability. Build in fish, garlic, Brazil nuts and brewers’ yeast to your diet to ensure you consume adequate selenium.
- Remember your A-Z
Don’t neglect the mineral Zinc in your diet. Food sources include oysters, nuts, seeds and fish. Zinc not only boosts male fertility, it also provides reduces the risk of experiencing confusion, depression and lack of motivation. A quick handful of sunflower and pumpkin seeds could just give you the energy and get up and go for a workout at the gym, as well as the bedroom: both of which can be a real boost to wellbeing and mood.
- Beyer, J., & Payne, M.E. (2016). Nutrition and Bipolar Depression. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 39(1), 75–86
- Holford P (2003). Optimum nutrition for the mind. London: Piatkus.
- Mental Health Foundation (2017). Food for thought: mental health and nutrition briefing. London: Mental Health Foundation
- O’Neil, et al. (2014). Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: A systematic review. American Journal of Public Health, 104(10).
- Stranges, S., et al. (2014). Major health-related behaviours and mental well-being in the general population: The Health Survey for England. BMJ Open, 4(9).