People often turn to sugar-laden comfort foods such as ice creams and pastries when they feel stressed or low. While these foods may feel satisfying in the moment, they are least likely to benefit your mental health. Several studies have found that diet and eating habits can have a significant impact on mental health. Let us understand this connection better.
How does diet affect mental health?
- Role of brain chemicals: The brain releases several chemicals called neurotransmitters such as serotonin (the happy hormone) and oxytocin (the love hormone), which play a major role in regulating mood, appetite, sleep and pain tolerance. Consuming foods rich in vitamin C and D, magnesium and healthy fats can help increase the levels of oxytocin, while foods such as eggs, spinach, cheese, nuts and seeds can naturally boost serotonin levels in the body.
- The gut-brain connection: Consuming a healthy diet promotes the growth of good bacteria in the intestines, which communicate with the brain through the gut-brain axis. These bacteria produce happy hormones such as serotonin and dopamine in the gut, which are responsible for regulating mood.
- Traditional versus western diet: Several studies have concluded that people who consume the Mediterranean diet are 25% to 35% less likely to develop depression as compared to those who consume a western diet, which includes high-calorie and high-fat foods.
- Inconsistent eating habits: A study including around 107 Iranian female adolescents found that women who indulged in skipping meals and unhealthy snacking were more likely to develop behavioural and emotional disorders such as conduct disorders (increased aggression) and hyperactivity disorders.
What to eat for good mental health?
It has been proven that healthy diets such as the Mediterranean diet can highly benefit mental health, as they reduce inflammation in the body and the risk of depression. A Mediterranean diet includes starchy fruits, vegetables, legumes, dairy products and lean meat. Here’s how one can incorporate these changes in daily diet:
- Add 5 portions of seasonal fruits and vegetables to the diet every day.
- Consume more wholegrain and starch-rich foods such as potatoes, brown rice, whole grain bread, and pasta.
- Consume low-fat dairy products such as toned milk or low-fat cheese.
- Add sources of protein such as beans, pulses, fish, and lean meat to the diet.
- Replace refined oil with more healthy vegetable oils such as olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil.
- Consume healthy omega-3 fats, which are found in oily fishes (tuna, salmon, and sardines), nuts (walnuts, almonds, and peanuts), and seeds (flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, and chia seeds).
Foods that have an adverse effect on mental health
- High carbohydrate foods: Processed, baked, and fried foods contain high amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugars, and subsequently, a high glycemic index. Glycemic index is measured by the time taken by a food item to raise sugar levels in the blood. Long term research has shown that the higher the glycemic index, the higher the risk of depression and mood disorders.
- Calorie-rich foods: Research shows that saturated fats present in coconut oil, cakes, biscuits, and other high-calorie foods can cause hyperactivity of the immune system, ultimately resulting in inflammation in the body. It has been found that high inflammation can result in various mental health conditions including mood disorders.
- Caffeinated beverages: Common consumables such as coffee and chocolate have caffeine, which can worsen anxiety, agitation, and other symptoms of depression.
Various studies have concluded that consuming oily and processed foods is associated with several mental health disorders including mood disorders and depression. Eating a balanced diet helps in releasing happy hormones in the body, thereby keeping stress and anxiety at bay. A qualified dietician can help devise a customized diet plan keeping lifestyle and other factors in mind.
Talk to a Dietitian