Eating Well For Mental Health
It is now well known that our physical health is directly linked to our mental health. So just how does what we put in our mouths affect how we feel?
How Does Nutrition Affect Our Mental Health?
The presence of depression, anxiety or other forms of mental health can take a huge toll on the wellbeing of many Australians, as well as our society as a whole.
Added to that, mental health issues can also increase the risk of chronic physical conditions such as arthritis, heart disease and diabetes.
Diet and lifestyle play a major role in managing any health condition, as well as having direct impact on the brain’s health and function. In other words, good nutrition not only nourishes your body, it feeds your brain and plays a vital part in the state of your mental health.
Junk Food Does Impact Our Mental Health
A poor diet is a clear risk factor for mental health. Research shows that those who consume the most junk food, have a higher risk of developing depression than those with the lowest consumption of junk food.
Different foods affect different hormones and neurotransmitter levels – all of which have subsequent flow on effects on health, mental health and our mood.
Starchy, sugary foods impair the body’s production of insulin, but they also promote inflammation and oxidation, further damaging the brain structure and function.
Good Nutrition and Great Mental Health
The microbiome plays a critical role in mental health, mood and other health conditions – as well as being essential for supporting the immune system. Fascinatingly, more than 80 per cent of the immune system is located within the gut.
The bacteria within the gut not only helps to digest food and absorb nutrients, but it also nourishes the mucosal gut cells which provides a barrier protection from ingested pathogens, viruses, food particles and other toxins.
The microbiome directly communicates with and influences the brain, with a healthy gut flora being associated with increased stress resilience.
When we choose nutritious foods, we’re providing our body (and brain) with the building blocks needed to be at our best. From vitamins and minerals to healthy fats and fibre, all nutrients play a role in brain health and function.
Following a healthy pattern of eating is linked with better stress management, improved sleep quality, increased concentration, and better mental wellbeing in general.
Just as our food choices affect our physical and mental wellbeing, the opposite is also true – we’re more likely to follow a healthy diet when we’re in a good headspace.
Foods to eat for a mood boost
Spoiler alert: there’s no superfood for mental wellbeing. It’s about balance, variety, and eating from the five food groups.
Fruit and vegetables provide us with fibre to support a healthy gut environment. Fibre is a favourite food of the beneficial bacteria in our gut that play a range of roles in supporting our overall health.
Fruit and vegetables also give us a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to support brain health. We should aim for two serves of fruit and five serves of veg a day.
Wholegrains are another important source of fibre to feed our good gut bacteria, plus healthy fats for brain function, and ‘slow’ carbohydrates for a steady source of brain fuel.
The protein in lean meats, fish and eggs provide building blocks of many brain chemicals that can influence our mood.
Fish, especially oily fish, along with nuts, seeds and legumes are also a good source of those healthy fats and vitamins that support positive mental health and are known to protect against dementia and depression.
Dairy foods like yoghurt contain living beneficial bacteria (known as probiotics) that can boost our gut health, which influences our mood and mental wellbeing.
Drinking plenty of fluids, especially water, prevents dehydration – a common cause of headaches, tiredness, and ‘brain fog’ that can affect our ability to concentrate. However, avoid quenching your thirst with drinks that are high in sugar, such as soft drinks.
5 tips to eating a well-balanced, nutritional diet for your mental health.
Often we turn to snacks that aren't nutritious when we are stressed. So it’s good to develop coping strategies that are not related to food - like exercise or mindfulness.
We know that some foods are very good for a healthy mind. Make sure your diet includes things like fruits and vegetables, foods high in fibre (wholegrain cereals and bread, beans, chickpeas, lentils), healthy fats (olive oil, nuts, avocado), fermented foods like unsweetened yogurt, and fish (tinned is fine).
Make small changes that are easy to stick to. Start by swapping processed afternoon snacks for nutritious ones, like fruit.
You don’t have to be perfect, and don't be too hard on yourself. A burger or a chocolate bar are fine every now and then (say, once on the weekend). But it's important to make sure your diet includes a variety of nutritious foods, most of the time!
Try to avoid too much red meat – a little bit is fine but keep it to 3-4 times per week.
Making changes can be challenging – start small and look for simple swaps to improve your diet. Little positive changes add up to a healthier, happier you.