Why nutrition is important for mental health

Hi everyone,

I thought I would try to answer one of the first questions I get asked when I mention I’m a nutritionist focussed on mental health: can an alteration in you diet make a difference to your mental health?

It’s a simple question with a bit of a complicated answer, and almost impossible to answer in one post without losing you halfway for its length. Just like other parts of your body, when your brain is undernourished, it simply doesn’t function as well as it could. As a result, it can potentially leave you feeling fatigued and depleted of energy, low, angry or irritable.

I’ll caveat all of this by saying mental health is extraordinarily complex with multiple physical, psychological and environmental causes. Nutrition certainly can play a role but it is rarely the sole cause of mental health issues. That said, I do believe that changes in diets can make a difference to emotional wellbeing. 

For example, study published in October 2019 found that participants who followed a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, fish and lean meat whilst cutting down on refined carbohydrates, sugar and fatty/processed foods reported lower levels of depression after just three weeks of following their new diet. This improvement stayed when the group who changed their diet were followed up three months later.

What was it about a diet that could make such a difference to mental health? There is a growing body of evidence that a Mediterranean diet is beneficial for alleviating depression.

This study describes a diet high in fruits, a range of vegetables, nuts, legumes (i.e. beans and pulses), wholegrains and reduced intake of unhealthy snacks and red meat/chicken. The takeaway isn’t to go vegan – it’s just that there’s some evidence that a moderate consumption (not 0 consumption) is linked to better mental health. Other foods thought to contribute to positive mental health include fermented foods (i.e. yoghurt, fermented milk, or kefir) which help contribute to a health-promoting set of gut bacteria. 

What these foods tend to have in common is a lot of nutrients. What are nutrients? They are the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fibres and other clever compounds which help to create all the different chemicals (like neurotransmitters and fatty insulation around our brain cells to make them work more efficiently) which help our brain cells to function, protect them from rusting (called oxidation) and much more. This is why us nutritionists often suggest a “nutrient-dense diet” – that gives you the most amount of nutrients for your intake.

There’s more to looking after your mental health than just your diet, and I would always advise you seek the support of your friends, family, GP, talking therapy, lots of sleep and exercise. I hope to break these all down in more upcoming posts but I hope I’ve captured your attention with this one so far!

Any questions, feel free to get in touch! 

Meera

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