Explained: The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health
Proper nutrition is what fuels our minds.
Think of your body as a premium car and your mind as the engine. Just like the car’s performance is affected by the quality of fuel you use; your body is affected by the quality of food you eat. Multiple studies over the years have confirmed that poor diet can adversely affect your physical health and lead to complications such as obesity and other related diseases.
However, the emerging twin branches of Nutritional Psychiatry/Psychology suggests that nutrition plays a significant role in regulating mental health.
If your body is a car, then your mind is an engine. Except that, this engine works 24/7. Proper nutrition is what fuels our minds, and our minds need a regular supply of fuel along with oxygen. If we supply our bodies with a high sugar and a high fat diet, we are filling up on poor fuel. If we supply our bodies with a healthy diet, we are giving our brains the fuel it needs to affect our cognitive processes and emotions.
What Exactly is a Healthy Diet?
To understand what constitutes a healthy diet, we need to understand how different food affects us. For example, carbohydrates release serotonin which is a chemical that calms the brain. Protein-rich food items increase alertness and healthy fats that contain omega-3 and omega-6 have been linked to lower rates of depression. Since our bodies cannot produce some of these, it is important that they are included in our diets. According to the Harvard Health Blog,
“Eating foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress — the “waste” (free radicals) produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells.”
The blog also suggests that studies comparing “traditional” diets, like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, and a typical “Western” diet have shown that the risk of depression is almost 35% lower in traditional diets. This is because these traditional diets tend to be high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, lean meats and dairy.
However, more significantly, these diets do not allow for processed and refined foods and sugars, which are integral to the “Western” dietary pattern. Moreover, many of these unprocessed foods are fermented, and therefore act as natural probiotics.
Some of the foods that we should incorporate into our lifestyle include:
- Dark chocolate
The Sugar Shock
We have all been there. Craving something sweet, especially after a long day to reward ourselves. In fact, sugar inhibits stress-induced cortisol secretion and minimizes feelings of anxiety and tension.
However, these effects are temporary. In the long run, sugar can cause multiple adverse effects, some of which are listed below:
Depression – We are wired to seek comfort in sugar-rich foods. However, the continuous cycle of crutching on sugar to manage our moods leave us more vulnerable to feelings of sadness, fatigue and hopelessness. Multiple studies have demonstrated that a sugar-rich diet increases the likelihood of developing depression. A 2017 study found that men who consumed a high amount of sugar (67 grams or more each day) were 23 percent more likely to receive a diagnosis of clinical depression within 5 years.
Anxiety – While studies have not shown that a high sugar diet can develop anxiety, this diet amplifies its effects. Individuals who suffer from panic attacks, for example, are hyper-alert to signs of impending danger. Sugar can cause blurry vision, difficulty thinking, and fatigue, all of which may be interpreted as signs of a panic attack, thereby increasing worry and fear. A sugar high and subsequent crash can cause shaking and tension, which can make anxiety worse.
Addiction – If you find yourself loading up on ice cream every time you go to a supermarket, you are not alone. A 2011 study by Yale University has demonstrated that the sight of a milkshake activated the same reward centres of the brain as cocaine among people with addictive eating habits. Dopamine causes the mind to develop addictions without which we undergo severe withdrawals.
How to Start Eating Healthy for Your Mind?
Take small steps. Start by paying attention to your mood and feelings after a meal filled with vegetables, clean proteins and goo fats versus how you feel two hours after a burger and fries. Over time, your mind and body will adapt to patterns that reward you in the long run.
While home cooked meals seem like a chore for most of us, it is the easiest way to reduce intake of processed foods and sugar.
Most often, the burden of cooking falls on one member of the family. A simple way to increase the frequency of home cooked meals is to turn it into a family activity. This also helps in inculcating a habit of cooking among younger children and teens while also teaching them about nutrition and cooking techniques.
Find substitutes. Replace that sugary fizz with some kombucha or flavoured water. Instead of processed candies, have a piece of dark chocolate. Make it a habit to only desserts that you’ve made. Since it takes a lot of effort to make and ice and cake, you’ll end up having lesser desserts and also have healthier desserts when you do.
The age-old adage that we are what we eat is becoming more relevant with every passing day. Our lifestyle has undergone a radical change in the 21st century and the abundance of processed foods has worsened the quality of our intake. Making small changes, such as eliminating sugar, will go a long way in equipping us with the current climate that challenges us.
(The author is a lawyer turned business intelligence consultant turned chef. He also designs weekly and monthly meal plans for clients and conducts baking and cooking workshops.)
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