BLOG BY Tabitha Ward, Registered Dietitian

Can A Healthy Diet Protect Our Mental Health?

We all know that the food we eat affects our physical health, but could it be affecting our mental health too?

There is growing evidence linking diet with mental health. And with approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem each year, it’s a huge issue that needs tackling.1 The most common treatment for mental health problems is drugs and psychotherapy, but with many unable to access care and several sufferers not responding to treatment, it’s worth looking at the role of food.

There are several causes of poor mental health, many of which a combination of biological, psychological, social and environmental factors.2 One factor which is often overlooked in mental health is nutrition. What we eat affects our brain health and not getting enough of the right nutrients can affect energy levels, mood and thought processes. Hope Virgo, a multi-award-winning mental health campaigner and author of Stand Tall Little Girl says “Eating a wide variety of food is so important for me, my mental health and my wider recovery from anorexia. Pushing those boundaries and exploring different types of food is key. We know that a healthy diet is better for our mental health and wellbeing but not when it becomes the detriment to our wider health and eating habits.” But the role of diet and mental health is complex and is yet to be fully understood. For example, does poor mental health arise from poor diet? Or vice versa? Let’s take a look at the evidence.

Diet and mental health- what’s the link?

A meta-analysis in 2017 reported the associations between dietary patterns and risk of depression.3 Results showed that those who followed healthful dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, had a decreased risk of depression. The Mediterranean diet consists of high intakes of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, oily fish, olive oil, low fat dairy and low intakes of animal foods. This contrasts to the to the typical Western diet which was associated with an increased risk of depression. The Western diet is characterised by a high intake of red and/or processed meats, refined grains, sweets, high fat dairy products with a low intake of fruits and vegetables.

What’s the explanation?

Healthy dietary patterns provide a whole host of nutrients which we need in order to stay healthy. These could be protective against the development of mental health disorders. 3 What’s more, there is emerging evidence suggesting a healthy diet may improve our gut health which could be of benefit to our mental health. This could be due to a change in the microbiome which influences brain development, behaviour and mood via the gut-brain axis. 4 However, this is a new area of research and more evidence is needed to make conclusions. Until then, some of the key nutrients outlined in the study for their positive impact on mental health include:

Antioxidants

A diet rich in fruit and veg is also high in antioxidants, for example vitamin C and E. Antioxidants are substances which mop up potentially dangerous compounds known free radicals in the body. This leads to less oxidative stress on the body, which may have a protective role against depression.3

Where to find it: fruits and veggies are the best source of antioxidants, but you can also find it in dark chocolate. Just make sure its 70% or higher.

B vitamins

Fruit and veg is a good source of B vitamins, including folate. We need folate for brain development and a deficiency has been linked to depressive symptoms. This could be due to lower levels of the happy chemical known as serotonin.5

Where to find it: green veg is a great source of folate, think broccoli and leafy greens.

Omega-3’s

High consumption of oily fish is associated with a reduced likelihood of depression. This is likely to be due to the high content of omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish. Omega-3 fats have anti-inflammatory properties and research suggests high levels of inflammation may be involved in the pathogenesis of depression.6

Where to find it: oily fish refers to salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, herring and pilchards. If you don’t eat fish, eat omega-3 rich plant-based foods, such as chia seeds or flax.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy balanced diet. Not getting enough could lead to feelings of tiredness, irritability and low mood.7 Opt for wholegrain carbs if you can as these are broken down slowly so provide sustained energy.

Where to find it: brown bread, brown rice, wholegrain pasta and starchy veg such as sweet potato.

Is there anything to avoid?

Foods with high levels of saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and processed food products have been linked to poorer mental health outcomes.8 For example, sausages, soft drinks and sweets. Its therefore best to keep these to a minimum. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever eat them, just have them in moderation. “The reality is, that for so many of us food is used in a way which might be disordered. Perhaps you had a long day at work or had some bad news; I have to be so mindful not to restrict when something negative happens, but for others it’s about not comfort eating” says Virgo.  

It’s also worth being mindful of caffeine. Caffeine gives many of us an energy boost, but it may also lead to feelings of anxiety and depression in some individuals.9 Be careful it doesn’t affect your sleep too.

Can a good diet replace medicine?

Eating healthier is always a good thing but you should always consult your doctor before making any changes to your medication. Whilst it’s great you want to make healthier choices, changing your medication could be dangerous and not always the right thing to do. It’s also worth being mindful that some foods can even be harmful if you are taking certain medications. For example, if you are taking an anti-anxiety medication such as buspirone, you should avoid eating grapefruits or drinking grapefruit juice. For more information, check out this link or contact your GP.9 (link ref 9)

Take home

What we eat can have a huge impact on our mood. And our mood can have a huge impact on the foods we choose to eat. To eat for your mental health, focus on a healthy balanced diet. And find out what works for you, everyone is different so personalise it to your lifestyle. It might seem like a momentous challenge at first as changing dietary habits is challenging but remember every healthy choice you make is a step in the right direction. Over time it will get easier and your mental health will thank you for it.

This blog post was written by, Tabitha Ward who is a Registered Dietitian working in Weight Management. You can find out more about Tabitha on her LinkedIn page.

References

1 https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health/how-common-are-mental-health-problems/

2 https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response

3 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165178117301981?via%3Dihub

4https://journals.lww.com/copsychiatry/Abstract/2015/01000/The_gut_microbiome_and_diet_in_psychiatry___focus.2.aspx

5 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22251911/

6 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41398-019-0515-5

7 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/

8 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4167107/

9 https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/food-and-mood/about-food-and-mood/

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