Food for thought : Role of nutrition in our mental health

By Sakuni Weerasinghe

You’re spending your Sunday on your couch, snacking on crisps while treating yourself to a movie marathon. Shall we pause for a second? Try and list down all the food items included in the full meals and snacks which you have enjoyed for the past week. How many of them seem of potent nutritional value to you, and how many were just nibbles that you mindlessly engorged on, which did more harm than good? It is about time we start paying attention to what we consume on the daily. While we often think about the consequences of eating unhealthy on physical terms; I hope this piece serves as a reminder that there are implications on your mental health as well.

If we could liken our bodies to machines to understand the purpose of nutrition, we may consider foods rich in nutrients to be akin to the premium types of fuel that ensure its smooth operation. We face a multitude of problems when we opt for fuel of lesser quality, much like our bodies becoming easily susceptible to illness when unhealthy diets factor in. If you think about it, there is no better time to reflect on our diets. In the face of a pandemic like Covid-19, we ought to keep our immunity, both physical and psychological, at optimum levels.

The growing body of research has led to a consensus that what we eat and drink affects how we feel, think, and behave. Hence, many practitioners are now moving towards a path of holistic care that integrates diet and exercise along with psychotherapy and medication. In fact, the field of nutritional psychiatry and psychology is steadily blooming. Nutrition appears to play an important role in the prevention, development, and management of diagnosed mental health problems including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dementia.

What has been found out is that eating high-quality foods that contain appropriate vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants will provide better nourishment, particularly to the brain which governs our bodily functions. Eating low-quality food in terms of both nutritional content and preparation can bring about a host of mental health concerns. For example, carbohydrates increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter, which impacts our mood. At lower levels, it can contribute to the development of depression.

Low levels of vitamin B, including vitamins B1, B2, B12, and folate have also been linked to an increased risk of depression. Consumption of sugar can not only worsen your body’s regulation of insulin, promote inflammation, and oxidative stress, but can also worsen symptoms of mood disorders. One study went on to show that people with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder tend to have a diet of poor quality that is high in sugar, fat, and carbohydrates. However, healthy fats that contain Omega-3 and Omega-6 have been associated with better management of bipolar depressive symptoms. It has also been linked with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment in middle age, having controlled other factors such as age. Moreover, protein-rich foods have been found to increase alertness.

In general, your diet ought to include plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, and limited amounts of sodium, saturated fat, and sugars. Even when it comes to snacking, try to go for fruit such as avocados and berries, nuts such as almonds, and dark chocolate if you have a sweet tooth. Small changes such as avoiding processed food, swapping sodas with water, and opting for healthier methods of food preparation in order to reduce the accumulation of toxins can go a long way to help you remain healthy.

Just the same as our nutrition has an impact on our minds, the reverse is also true. Often enough, when a person speaks of curating a diet plan, or makes the switch to fruit juice from carbonated drinks and processed snacks, they face endless teasing and are subjected to ridicule by the people surrounding them. When such taunts get personal, this will decrease a person’s motivation to stick to a healthier diet. This also results in the person developing feelings of guilt over not consuming the meals that his or her friends are pushing for them to have, and so develop a fear of missed opportunities to hang out with friends.

When the person’s entire efforts are mocked, it can be both infuriating and disheartening at the same time, which might lead the person to ruminate over whether it is possible to stick to a healthy meal plan. Therefore, it is important to remind yourself that regardless of what is being said, your food choices are geared towards ensuring good health for yourself. Ultimately, this will positively impact others as well. As for family and friends, it is wonderful if we could support those making the transition to healthy food plans, and hopefully be inspired to do the same in our own lives as well.

While good nutritional intake alone may not contribute to a significant reduction in the prevalence of mental health problems, a person’s diet remains a modifiable risk factor that can be controlled to bring about positive health benefits.