Exploring The Links Between The Two.
With the surge of mental health awareness over the world today, many have been wondering if diet and mental health are somewhat related to each other. Because psychological well-being is closely linked to chemical processes in the body, experts seem to be in chorus about the fact that what you eat directly affects your mental and emotional health as well. This in-depth article will cover that information in detail.
You might have experienced this in real life:
Do you remember the days when you felt down, depressed and just a tad bit gloomy? Then your mother fixed you a good cup of hot chocolate, and suddenly you felt bright and cheerful? This is just one example of how our food and liquid intake can directly affect our mood. It illustrates the role of nutrition on mental health.
The goal of this article is to show the various interrelationships between healthy eating and mental health. By spreading awareness about this information, social problems such as depression and suicide can be prevented by simply improving overall diet and nutrition.
Let’s start with this all-important question:
How Can A Bad Diet Affect Your Mental Health?
Answering this question is like answering the chicken and egg controversy. Which one came first? Did the bad diet cause the depression, or did the depression cause the poor diet?
The answer to these questions is “we will never know”. What’s important is to simply recognise the link between food and mental health.
The truth is that, bad diet affects mental health, and vice versa. The one causes the other. Once this wheel is set in motion, it starts a vicious cycle that even the affected person will have a difficulty overcoming.
This is one of the reasons why a person suffering from mental health problems (such as deep unexplained sadness, depression, isolation, poor self-esteem, etc), needs the support of people such as family and friends.
In many cases, the affected person must be protected from himself or herself. For example, if an individual is suffering from poor self-esteem or depression, he or she might develop the tendency to binge on excessive food. This, in turn, can lead to accelerated weight gain, which then leads to lower self-esteem.
Here are some of the ways by which a bad diet can lead to even more mental health issues:
Packing The Pounds Can Lead To Sluggishness
A diet that’s dominated by junk food, processed foods, and drinks with added sugar, can lead to spikes in blood glucose levels. The body responds to this blood sugar increase by releasing lots of insulin into the blood stream. Insulin then helps the sugar get absorbed into the cells, and also turns the broken-down glucose into fat stores.
While the sugar spike in itself will temporarily cause an energy boost, it will lead into overall sluggishness for the long term. When fat stores build up in the body, the individual feels heavier and more sluggish. This feeling of general tiredness is further intensified by a lack of exercise.
Poor Diet Can Lead To Physical Disease
Bad diet can cause a variety of diseases such as heart problems, cancer and diabetes. Not only that, eating unhealthy foods for prolonged periods of time can weaken the immune system, making an individual more susceptible to contagious diseases, such as cold, flu and viral diseases.
Being prone to illness can wreak havoc on one’s own mental health. Staying sick on the bed for days or even weeks, can cause a person to feel depressed and lacking in energy. For an already depressed individual, getting sick physically is like adding insult to injury.
Certain Foods Can Contribute To Depression
When it comes to nutrition and mental health, the importance of diet in depression patients cannot be underestimated.
For many centuries and decades, people thought that depression happens strictly as a result of a sad event, a traumatic experience or a loss in the family. While this may be true in some cases, depression can also be caused by purely biological reasons.
Some foods can actually cause or exacerbate depression by affecting the body chemistry and messing up with metabolic and hormonal balance:
- Refined carbohydrates – Stuff like white bread, cake, pastries, and sweet biscuits are all classified as refined carbs. These foods contain carbohydrates that are easily broken down by the body, causing a faster spike in blood sugar. Studies have shown that a diet rich in refined carbs and high glycemic index food is highly associated with depressed individuals.
- Added Sugar – Sometimes a little bit of sugar to sweeten your coffee might not be bad, but the evil lies in ‘added sugar’. This is the sugar added to soda, packed fruit juices, ketchup, chocolate, and ice cream. Other studies have shown that too much sugar in the diet can cause inflammation in the body, a characteristic also found in depressed patients.
- Processed foods – Hotdogs, canned goods, and ready-to-cook soup mixes may be convenient and easy to prepare, but they contain too much additives and preservatives. These chemicals can further mess up the body’s metabolic processes and lead to a condition called chronic inflammation. This, in turn, contributes to depression.
- Trans Fats – Some scientific studies also found a link between dietary fat intake and depression risk. Out of approximately 12,000 Spanish individuals who participated in the study, 657 new cases of depression were found among people exposed to foods high in trans fatty acids.
Why Comfort Foods Can Make You Gloomier
People today put a lot of value on “comfort foods” such as pizza, pasta, burgers, soda, fries and other food choices found in Western diets. While there’s nothing wrong consuming these foods in reasonable quantities, basing your entire diet on such can lead to chronic illness and clinical depression.
Take for example, the big bowl of chocolate ice cream with crinkles. Feasting on the whole bowl of ice cream while watching a movie with your friends can give you an initial emotional high. The ice cream tastes good, loads of sugar and carbs are being dumped on your body, and the energy derived from such sugar and carbs can make you feel so pumped.
But this sugar spike is almost always followed by a sugar “crash”. This is characterized by a sudden drop in energy levels, leaving an individual feeling down, sleepy, and perhaps even a little bit depressed. This is called reactive hypoglycaemia, and it could happen to people with or without diabetes.
And guess what the body will crave during a sugar crash episode? Yes, you guessed it, more sugar!
Eventually, the body becomes more dependent on huge amounts of sugar intake to feel a sense of energy and well-being. But this exact same dependence on sugary foods leaves a person weaker, more sluggish and even more depressed than before.
Given that a high intake of sugar and carbohydrates can impact mental health in many ways, some experts think that a low carb diet might be a better alternative for people who have depression (or are trying to avoid the condition).
But is this a good alternative? Let’s find out:
Are Low Carb Diets Bad For People With Mental Health Problems?
In the past few paragraphs, we have talked about the bad effects of excessive carb intake on people with a risk of depression. However, is a low carb diet a better approach? Does a low carb diet and mental health improvement go hand in hand?
Many people shy away from low carb diets because they associate feelings of depression and sadness with feelings of hunger. After all, it’s hard to concentrate on building positive emotions when you’re craving some sweets or other junk food.
Ketogenic diet, or a diet with low carb intake, is found to be the best for mental health improvement, as revealed in an article by Diabetes.co.uk.
Here are some of the reasons why:
- A low carb diet helps provide a long lasting “feel good” effect. When your body starts to get used to a low carbohydrate intake, it stops viewing carbs as the main source of fuel for energy. The body now turns its attention on fat stores, and makes fat the main source of energy. This shift from carb to fat burning is called a state of ketosis. And because fat is a more efficient source of energy, there are no adverse effects on the body the same way a high carb diet can cause.
- Low carb diets boost brain power. We’ve been taught that glucose is ‘food for the brain’, and if you don’t eat enough sugar, your brain won’t be able to function well. While it’s true that glucose can assist the brain and its functions, it is not the only source of fuel for brain processes. Ketone bodies produced from fat have been found to be more efficient fuel for the brain than glucose!
If this reads like a misprint, it’s not. Just think of the cavemen who lived thousands of years ago. They lived exclusively on plant and animal-based diets. No sugar and refined carbohydrates, and yet they have high levels of concentration and can catch fast moving creatures from both land and water.
What if sugar really isn’t meant to be the main fuel source of the body? What if the human body was originally wired to use fat exclusively as its main source of energy?
This is definitely worth thinking about!
- A Low Carb Diet Has Anti-Oxidant Effects. The hallmark of a high carb diet is a higher degree of oxidative stress on the body, including the brain, as well as increased levels of inflammation. Such side effects don’t happen in low carb diets. In fact, burning fat (not carbs) for body fuel reduces oxidative stress in the body and can lead to enhanced brain function. This, in itself, can lead to better mental health and a sense of well-being.
The Right Diet For Mental Health
In this section, we will find out the best diet for mental health, so you can constantly feel good physically and emotionally. This will help you avoid mental health problems like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and even dementia.
The important rule of thumb here is to prioritize eating “real food”, while lessening or eliminating processed food with lots of unnatural substances.
Here are of the best diet options available:
A vegan diet is a strictly plant and vegetable-based diet. While unthinkable for some, there are many people who swear by it and have found a close relationship between a vegan diet and mental health improvement.
Mediterranean diet and mental health go extremely well together. In this diet, food intake is focused on the following:
- Daily intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats
- Reasonable portions of dairy products such as milk or butter
- Occasional or rare intake of red meat
- Weekly consumption of high protein foods such as fish, eggs, and beans
Think about it, a Mediterranean diet is based on natural food, not on processed food with refined carbs and added sugar. These are not just food choices for optimum physical health, they are also food for mental health wellness.
As discussed earlier, a keto diet limits the amount of your carbohydrate intake. The keto dieter is then encouraged to eat lots of healthy fat and protein. The goal is to reach the state of ketosis (which starts to kick in as soon as the body recognizes that it is not getting enough glucose), where the body switches its main fuel source from carb to fat.
Top 11 Foods For Mental Health
Are you wondering what are the best foods for depression? Here are the top 11 foods for improving mental health:
- Salmon. Salmon is a type of fish which contains a lot of healthy fats. These fats are known as Omega-3 fatty acids, which is associated with better learning and memory. Aside from this, salmon has a high amount of Vitamin D, which is known to lower the risk of depression.
- Chicken. If you ever wondered why your mother always gives you “chicken soup” whenever you are sad, it’s because chicken contains an amino acid called tryptophan. This amino acid helps the body produce more serotonin (the “feel good” hormone).
- Tomatoes. Eat the natural tomatoes, not the ones you find in tomato sauce. It contains lots of natural lycopene which helps improve memory and concentration.
- Whole Grains. In this food category are beans, brown rice and oats. They are a good source of protein and complex carbohydrates. Eating complex carbohydrates helps you avoid getting the sugar crashes we described earlier.
- Yoghurt. Aside from providing your intestinal flora with probiotics, yoghurt is rich in magnesium and potassium, which are vitamins that promote better oxygen flow to the brain.
- Avocado. Avocados are rich in Vitamin K and Folate, substances that help protect the brain from stroke and also helps boost memory and concentration. On top of this, an avocado is loaded with healthy fats.
- Apples. Apples are high in anti-oxidants, which help to repair oxidative damage on a cellular level. In turn, inflammation in the body is reduced, preventing a variety of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, and depression.
- Spinach. This is a rich source of folic acid, a substance that helps fight off insomnia and prevents the symptoms of sleep deprivation that contributes to bad mental health.
- Nuts. Nuts are good snacking options (instead of junk food) because they have a variety of health benefits. For example, almonds contain phenylalanine, a substance that helps the brain produce dopamine. Dopamine boosts your mood.
- Olive Oil. Olive oil is used mainly for Mediterranean diets, and is known to be effective in avoiding Alzheimer’s Disease (a late onset mental health condition).
- Dark Chocolate. Natural cocoa, when consumed in moderation, can be a great anti-oxidant. This reduces the oxidative stress in the body and prevents chronic inflammation.
The above food choices can be supplemented by a steady and consistent exercise program. Let’s discuss that below:
How Does Diet And Exercise Affect Mental Health?
Improving your diet and making nutritious food choices can greatly enhance your overall well-being. Now let’s discuss the role of diet and exercise for mental health.
There are lots of people who go on a diet but doesn’t support their efforts with an exercise routine. This deprives them of a chance to make the most out of their fitness program.
Whether you choose Keto, Mediterranean or Vegan diet, the most powerful approach is still to couple that diet with exercise. It leads to a healthier body and mind.
Here’s how diet and exercise affect mental health:
Release Of Endorphins And Serotonin
As highlighted in an article by Health Direct Australia, exercise directly impacts health by releasing chemicals known as endorphins. These are body chemicals that make you feel good and with a bright, happy outlook. Moreover, exercise promotes the secretion of the hormone serotonin, also known as the “feel good” hormone.
Better Blood Flow To The Brain
Exercise helps the body by strengthening the heart and therefore improving the body’s ability to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the entire body. This increase in oxygen supply throughout the body crosses the blood brain barrier. This helps a person think clearly and have sharper brain function. In fact, when there is a good flow of oxygen to the brain, there is an increase in the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for remembering things (memory).
Stress, aside from poor diet, is one of the main factors in depression. When you exercise, emotional stress is minimized and cortisol levels in the body is lessened.
Cortisol is the primary stress hormone in the body. One of its main roles is to increase the sugar in the bloodstream to give the body a temporary boost in energy. However, prolonged elevation of cortisol in the body can lead to weight gain and also interferes with learning and memory. You can avoid all these by exercising regularly and making sure your stress levels are at a minimum.
Exercise Improves Sleep
Perhaps one of the main benefits of exercise is restoration of healthy, recuperative sleep. After you exercise (especially when you perform challenging exercises), the body will try to recuperate and repair its tissues through sleep. Exercise helps improve body processes that contribute to more productive rest periods, ideally 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.
A lack of sleep, meanwhile, is linked to depression and other mental issues. Sleep deprivation can lead to crankiness, decreased alertness, a bad mood, and confusion.
The Real Deal About Healthy Eating & Mental Health
Now that you know the correlation between diet nutrition and mental health, it is now time to make a change in your eating habits to ensure that your mental health is always in a good state.
Depression can hit just about anyone, and when a person suffers from it, it may be hard to recover from. This is the reason why you should always guard your psychological and physiological well-being, knowing that the either one ALWAYS affects each other.
It may be difficult to reverse years of unhealthy eating. Here are some tips to help you get started in improving your diet and nutritional habits:
- Start a food diary. When you start listing your daily or weekly food intake, you will be able to pinpoint which exact foods may have caused your depression, lack of energy, and feelings of sluggishness.
- Unwind and take it easy. When you are too busy, you’re easily tempted to order takeout from a fast-food chain or binge on sweets. Take a breather and give yourself some time to carefully pick your food choices. Remember, your health is so much more important than your work.
- Develop a meal plan. Try to create your own based on your own research or preference. There are lots of recipes available out there for ketogenic, vegan and Mediterranean diets. Feel free to use for your personal meal planning.
Life is so short to be unhappy. Guard your mental health by helping your body with proper nutrition. Avoid food choices that contribute to depression, and choose food that will support the body’s natural processes. Nourishing your mind is pretty much the same as nourishing your body. It takes discipline, focus, and consistency. But the long-term rewards are definitely worth it.