The old saying that “we are what we eat” is definitely is true. It is a common fact that unhealthy food can cause physical illness, but it is less known that there is a similar association between healthy eating and mental health.
More or less everyone knows what healthy eating is, it is not a difficult thing. Yet, as each of us is a little bit different everyone has different needs. As many approaches try to generalise and oversimplify this (as the mainstream media do), it often leads to confusion and disinformation. Therefore, I will not give any explanation of healthy eating, instead, I am going to focus on the relationship between healthy eating and mental health from a holistic point of view.
Fortunately, the medical science is gradually starting to understand that no illness can be treated without considering the wholeness of the patients, so it has recognised the interplay of biological, psychological, social and environmental factors and the importance of the healthy eating as well. Our diet influences our emotional well-being because the food which we consume affects our chemical balance in our brain. There is a complex interplay of chemicals that affect our mood and our brain function. There is an increasing body of evidence that supports these facts. I have found an excellent report from Mental Health Foundation (New Zealand charity group), which gives a very good summary of these studies. Their key findings:
- Some nutrients trick the brain by triggering an over-release of neurotransmitters and some foods damage the brain by releasing toxins or oxidants that harm healthy brain cells. There are many more nutrients that serve the brain without deception or damage, which can improve mood and mental well-being.
- A balanced mood and feelings of well-being can be protected by ensuring that our diet provides adequate amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fats, amino acids, vitamins and minerals and water.
- There is a plethora of anecdotal, clinical and controlled studies that point to the importance of diet as one part of the jigsaw in the prevention of poor mental health and the promotion of good mental health.
- Research indicates that good nutritional intake may be linked to academic success. A number of studies report that providing children with breakfast improves their daily and long-term academic performance.
- Among some young offenders, diets supplemented with vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids have resulted in significant and remarkable reductions in anti-social behaviour.
Mental health problems
- There is growing evidence that diet plays an important contributory role in specific mental health problems, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
- The presentation of depression in the UK population has increased dramatically over recent decades and this has been accompanied by a decrease in the age of onset, with more cases being reported in children, adolescents and young adults.
- A correlation between low intakes of fish by a country and high levels of depression amongst its citizens, as well as the reverse, has been shown for major depression, post-natal depression, seasonal affective disorder and bipolar affective disorder.
Source for key findings: Feeding Minds: The impact of food on mental health