As I study nutrition and see how the food we consume has been changing over time, mental health illnesses come to mind as well. There has been an increase in mental health disorders over the last decade and during this period our food has drastically changed. Some of the questions that come to mind include: Why do some people tend to stress eat? Why do individuals crave fatty and sugary foods like fast foods and ice cream while going through emotional challenges? Is there a relationship between the food we eat and our mental health?
Well, the answer is YES! Mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and ADHD have in some cases been found to be linked to the person’s diet. For example, a review of 21 studies in 10 different countries showed that a healthy dietary pattern, characterized by a high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, fish, low-fat dairy, antioxidants as well as low intakes of animal foods, was associated with a reduced risk of depression. A western-style diet, involving a high intake of red and processed meats, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter and potatoes as well as a low intake of fruits and vegetables, was linked with a significantly increased risk of depression.
The connection between diet and emotions comes from the close relationship between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract, also called “the second brain”.
The connection between diet and emotions comes from the close relationship between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract, also called “the second brain”. Your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is home to billions of bacteria that influence the production of neurotransmitters, chemical substances that constantly carry messages from the gut to the brain, (dopamine and serotonin are two common examples).
Eating healthy food promotes the growth of “good” bacteria which in turn positively affects neurotransmitter production. When neurotransmitter production is in good shape, your brain receives these positive messages loud and clear, and your emotions reflect it. But when production goes awry, so might your mood.
Sugar is considered a major culprit of inflammation plus it feeds ‘bad’ bacteria to the GI tract. It can cause a spike in the “feel good” neurotransmitters like dopamine that isn’t good for you either. The result is a fleeting sugar rush that is followed shortly by a crash that is terrible for your mood.
It is good to note that while observational studies can show an association between food and mental health, they cannot prove the cause or effect of the disorder.
How can you change your diet in consideration of your mental health?
- Stay hydrated. Hydration can affect your ability to concentrate and mood.
- Look after your gut health. Remember it can reflect how you are feeling. Good food for your gut includes fruits and vegetables.
- Avoid caffeine if it does affect your mood, making you anxious and irritable too.
- Less processed foods. Include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables as they include minerals and vitamins needed by your body and brain to stay well.
- Eat regularly to ensure that your blood sugar levels do not go down which might make you feel tired and bad-tempered. Don’t forget to check your portions.
- Share meals. There are many psychological and social benefits of sharing meals with other people as they give you a sense of belonging and feel connected to others.
Written by Terry Njambi
Terry is a nutritionist by passion, focusing on changing peoples lifestyle to eat healthy. She helps individuals to change their diet to eat cleaner for general health and mental wellbeing. Being a mom, she helps fellow moms with their child’s nutrition and curbing obesity in children.
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