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Mental health and the impact of food

March 30, 2023

In the 21st century, our understanding of mental health continues to expand with more research focusing on the relationship between our diet and our mental health.

Our mental health includes our ability to regulate our moods, our concentration and attention span and our general behaviour. As a food service company, it is essential that we make a commitment to promoting the health and the mental health of our clients, by acknowledging the connection between food and health and empowering ourselves by learning more about this connection.

By making nutritious foods that support mental health as a priority, we can all work towards improving our own and our clients, mental and physical health.

Mental health disorders including anxiety, depression and bipolar disorders, affect millions of people worldwide. Research is showing that dietary interventions can play a significant role in helping to manage these conditions as well as helping us to manage our stress, our emotions and helps us to sleep better.

General interventions include choosing to eat a Mediterranean diet and avoiding a diet that is high in sugar, saturated fats and processed foods. An unhealthy diet has a direct effect on us, including fatigue, impaired decision making and slower reaction times and well as contributing to stress and depression. An unhealthy diet can worsen negative behaviour traits such as hyperactivity, aggression and disobedience, as well as the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Poor concentration and tiredness, as a result of a poor diet, interfere with the ability of a child to learn.

The main ways that diet affects one’s mental health include:

1.  Nutrient Deficiencies: The most effective way to prevent nutrient deficiencies is to eat a healthy, balanced diet that includes a variety of foods from different food groups.

Certain nutrient deficiencies that may affect mental health include:
•  Omega-3 fatty acids: These are important for brain function and have been linked to improved mood and reduced risk of depression. Foods rich in omega-3s include fatty fish like salmon and sardines, as well as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts.

•  B vitamins: These are important for energy production and brain function. A deficiency in vitamin B12 has been linked to depression and anxiety. Foods rich in B vitamins include whole grains, nuts and seeds and leafy green vegetables.

•  Magnesium: This mineral is important for mood regulation and relaxation. Foods rich in magnesium include spinach, almonds, avocados and dark chocolate.

2.  Inflammation: Chronic inflammation in the body can contribute to a range of mental health conditions including mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Foods that may increase inflammation include:
•  Highly Processed foods: These are often high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats, which can all contribute to inflammation. Examples include processed snacks, sugary drinks, fast food and takeaways.

•  Fried foods: These can be high in trans fats, which are particularly inflammatory. Examples include fried chicken, French fries, and doughnuts.

•  High-glycaemic index foods: These are foods that cause a rapid spike in blood sugar, which can trigger inflammation. Examples include white bread, refined pasta and sugary drinks.

It is difficult, as generally, when we are feeling stressed or depressed, we often eat comfort foods to help us “feel better” or drink coffee in place of a proper meal when we are busy.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are usually the first items to be forgotten about and replaced with high-fat, high-calorie convenience food, or we end up skipping meals altogether. Even though these are all very common “coping methods”, a poor diet, especially during periods of stress or depression, has a hugely negative effect on our mental health.

Ways to improve your diet and positivity influence your mental health include focusing on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, especially dark green leafy vegetables as well as nuts, seeds and legumes.

3.  Gut-Brain Connection: The gut microbiome is made up of trillions of bacteria that play an important role in digestion and overall health. What we eat can affect the balance of bacteria in the gut, which in turn can affect mental health. Foods that can support a healthy gut microbiome include:

•  Fermented foods: These are rich in beneficial bacteria that can help promote a healthy gut microbiome. Examples include yogurt, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut.

•  High-fibre foods: These can help feed the good bacteria in the gut. Examples include whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and legumes.

•  Polyphenol-rich foods: These are plant compounds that have been linked to a    healthy gut microbiome. Examples include berries, green tea and dark chocolate.

This connection goes both ways, while the gut is able to influence emotional behaviour in the brain, the brain can also alter the type of bacteria living in the gut.

The bacteria in the gut produce neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate our mood and other physiological and mental processes. It is suggested that stress suppresses beneficial gut bacteria.

4.  Emotional eating: Unfortunately, during times of stress or difficult emotions, we tend to use food as a coping mechanism without even realising it which can lead to a pattern of unhealthy eating. Examples of emotional eating may include:

•  Comfort foods: These are typically high in sugar, fat, or both and can provide a temporary boost in mood. Examples include ice cream, pizza, chocolate and starch-based dishes like macaroni and cheese.

•  Mindless snacking: Eating when not hungry can become a habit and lead to overeating. Examples include snacking while watching TV or scrolling through social media.

Step one of mindful eating and making sure you are eating well-balanced meals and snacks is to pay attention to how you feel when you eat and what you eat. An effective way to do this is to keep a food diary of everything you eat during the course of the day including what, where and when you eat.

•  Skipping meals: Skipping meals can lead to overeating later on and can contribute to unstable blood sugar levels, which can affect your mood. If you find yourself undereating, it can help to schedule five or six smaller meals instead of the traditional three meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner.

How to eat a healthy diet for your mental health:

Your body requires a variety of carbohydrates, proteins, fat, vitamins and minerals to function effectively. In particular, your brain and nervous system need good nutrition to build new proteins, cells and tissues.

The most effective way to ensure you get the correct nutrients to improve and protect your mental functioning is to eat a variety of healthy foods every day including:

•  Wholewheat Carbohydrates – Sources include brown rice, brown pasta, quinoa and sweet potato. These will keep you fuller for longer and have more nutritional value than refined ‘white’ carbohydrates.

•  Lean Proteins and Plant-Based Proteins –    Sources include chicken, meat, fish, eggs,    soybeans, legumes, beans, nuts and seeds.

•  Healthy Fats – Sources include fish, meat, eggs, nuts and flaxseeds.

Healthy Eating Tips

•  Avoid highly processed foods, for example potato chips, which affect your ability to concentrate.

•  Avoid sugary snacks and drinks which result in highs and lows in your energy levels.

•  Consume plenty of healthy fats, such as oils, fish and avocado which support your brain function.

•  Plan your meals and include healthy snacks as options for when you are hungry such as fruit, nuts, hard-boiled eggs or edamame beans which will give you more energy than high-sugar products.

•  Write out a healthy shopping list and stick to it. Don’t shop while hungry as you will be more likely to make unhealthy, unplanned purchases.

•  Be mindful of where and when you eat. Don’t eat in front of the television, as this distraction can result in you overeating. The best solution is to find a quiet place to sit and relax and take notice of what you are eating. Chew slowly, savouring the taste of the food.

It is always important to acknowledge that a healthy diet is just one component of our overall mental health. Everyone has their own, individual nutritional needs. If you have concerns about your mental health or your eating habits, please speak to a healthcare professional.

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