There are few topics of scientific interest that are as ubiquitously vital to our everyday lives and as mired by myths and misinformation as diets and nutrition are or the link between food and mental health. Despite meals being a facet of every human’s life, our understanding of food and the way it interacts with human health is often bogged down by sensationalism and fearmongering.
The Link Between Food and Mental Health
Nevertheless, Americans are not quite as unhealthy as we might be led to believe. Only 5 percent of Americans do not eat some form of vegetable on a daily basis, and nearly 65 percent of Americans consume fruits daily, as well. Quality nutrition – especially leafy green food intake – scales proportionately with income, indicating that at least one major barrier to a healthy diet is cost rather than knowledge.
Furthermore, over half of the people aged 20 and above consumed some form of dietary supplement in the last 30 days, ranging from multivitamins to vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation. The most recommended supplements for bone health in later years. But there is more to the way our diet impacts our health than what meets the eye.
How Diet Affects Mental Health
While we understand that “you are what you eat,” there is a fundamental lack of knowledge about the impact food has on mental health as well as physical health. Our mind is deeply intertwined with our body in more ways than one – the human brain, while accounting for a significant amount of conscious thought, is not the only “driving force” behind our behavior, emotions, and thoughts.
Impacts on Mood and Behavior
Organ health, especially endocrine health and gut health, can impact mood and behavior, exacerbate conditions such as depression or anxiety, and even contribute to suicidality. Chronic pain and the impact it has on our mental health can be improved or made worse through diet. Malnutrition directly affects both cognition and mood.
There are multiple ways our food can affect how we feel on a moment-to-moment basis, as well as long-term mental impact. Food can have positive and negative implications, from the endorphin release of a favorite snack or an inherently mood-altering foodstuff like chocolate pudding, to the long-term effects any given diet might have on a person’s thyroid health, gut microbiome, and general health.
Unhealthy Eating Causes Stress on Organs
Food can also have an intense relationship with mental health. Eating disorders are some of the deadliest mental disorders, as frequent binge eating and/or self-starving behavior puts excessive amounts of stress on the heart and other organs.
A healthy relationship with food might not necessarily guarantee a healthy relationship with the mind, but it is a necessary part of maintaining good mental health.
Nutrition and the Brain
The brain is a natural focal point when discussing mental health. Balanced brain function requires a balanced diet, and lack thereof can affect not just the way we think, but our cognition, memory, and personality.
Malnutrition, Headaches, and Trouble Concentrating
Common forms of malnutrition can begin to affect the brain long before they necessarily affect the rest of the body, starting with headaches and concentration issues to frequent fainting. Common mineral and vitamin deficiencies, from scurvy and anemia to hyponatremia, can lead to a number of physical symptoms, from nausea to pain.
But these deficiencies also affect people mentally. Iron, for example, is a critical element in the production of mood-regulating neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. Low iron levels can impact mood negatively and exacerbate depressive symptoms.
The Benefits of Nutrition and Mental Health
On a more subtle note, the food we eat can have an impact on our mood, positively and negatively. More research has shown the benefits of a nutritional approach to mental health treatment, including improved symptoms of depression and OCD following an adjustment to a patient’s diet and nutritional habits.
Good food can improve our mental health, even in cases of diagnosed disorders. For the general public, a balanced diet may play an important role as a protective factor against the mental health effects of high stress and other risk factors.
The Importance of a Healthy Dietary Balance
In addition to vitamins and minerals, a healthy dietary balance of important fatty acids is also critical for cognitive and mental health. Not only are many critical vitamins fat-soluble – meaning we need a steady and healthy amount of fat to absorb and use them, whether in supplementary form or through our diet – but fat is the basic building block of the brain. Our brain is about 60 percent fat and only 40 percent water, carbohydrates, and proteins.
But not just any fat will do. We need a balance of saturated and unsaturated fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated plant fats. The only dietary fat most people can safely avoid is trans-fat, the result of an industrial process that involves hydrogenating plant oils to create a shelf-stable solid fat for margarine and most junk foods, which brings us to the importance of a balanced diet.
A Balanced Meal
We’ve all heard of the food pyramid, as well as the dozens of different dietary movements that each follow their own philosophy around food and healthy living, whether morally or physically. While there is nothing wrong with eating a predominantly plant-based diet or consuming fewer carbs, or less fat, the most health gains are made through a diet that encompasses all our macronutrient and micronutrient needs.
Daily Serving of Vegetables
You won’t get around a daily serving of vegetables if you want longevity and good mental health – and while you don’t need to consume animal products, it’s still the easiest and often most cost-effective way to absorb a lot of bioavailable amino acids, including ones that aren’t readily available through plants, such as lycine and tryptophan.
There is only one amino acid you cannot get from any plant-based source, and it is non-vital. But some nutrients are better absorbed through animal products than plants, such as iron (heme iron vs. non-heme iron) or DHA, and some are only available through supplementation or animal foods, like vitamin B12.
A Feasible Diet
Any diet that gets you everything you need while remaining both financially and culinarily feasible and keeping your daily intake within a healthy number of calories is a good diet. But even if your goal is to lose weight (or gain weight!) rather than stay mentally or physically healthy, a balanced diet is crucial.
Do not starve yourself by cutting down to a 1000-calorie diet or double your caloric intake to hit your weight goals. These methods are unsustainable and will only result in dramatic weight gain/loss after you’ve reached your “goal.” Make appropriate changes to your eating habits to eat better, whether that means fewer carbs and more leafy greens or more varied sources of protein.
Tackling the Coffee Dilemma
Caffeine is the most popular and widespread psychoactive compound on the planet. Americans alone consume an average of two to three cups of coffee per day, not accounting for the amount of caffeine consumed through energy drinks and other foods.
This, too, might be having either a positive or a negative impact on your mental and physical health. Caffeine dependence can cause poor sleep and lack of rest and impact mood and cognition. Too much coffee can negatively affect anxiety disorders and exacerbate symptoms.
If you have a “strong” relationship with your coffee machine, consider how it may be affecting you mentally and physically. A caffeine reset might help you recognize whether caffeine is having a negative impact on your life and lead you to consider other helpful means of staying productive, from theanine to better sleep.
For more information or tips on mental health, visit Amend Treatment.