There’s a lot of useful information in the media recently about how diet can impact our physical health, hardly a week goes by without another study being published. In comparison, however, there have been fewer articles highlighting the benefits of good nutrition on mental health.
The first and most important thing to recognise is that what constitutes a healthy diet is different for everyone. For example, the NHS NICE guidelines recommend a diet low in fat and high in fibre but that may not be ideal for people with Celiac Disease or type 2 diabetes.
Finding a healthy diet that works for you in addition to having positive physical effects, can also have a massive impact on your mental health. For example, a recent study in 2017 conducted by Parletta et al found that a Mediterranean diet that favoured fruit, vegetables, beans, fish, unsaturated fats etc along with fish oil led to a reduction in levels of depression for participants over a six month period. This is just one example of many (Harvard Article, MentalHealth.org etc) where a healthy diet has been shown to improve mental health.
Reducing processed foods and sugars can help avoid the rapid rise and fall of blood sugar levels which can cause an increase in stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that in turn may have a negative impact on mood. Foods high in Omega-3 fats, such as fish, pork, bacon and leafy vegetables can also help to drastically reduce and protect against anxiety. It is important to remember that, in many cases, although a healthy diet can be beneficial it is not a substitute for other forms of support e.g therapy or medication.
An unhealthy diet may seem like the least of your worries, but in the long run, it can actually become a contributing factor in your overall mental health. One study has shown that participants who ate mostly processed foods for five years where at a greater risk of suffering from depression in comparison to those who maintained a healthier diet. An unbalanced diet that leads to weight gain or loss might also affect self-esteem and confidence.
In addition to diet, hydration can be another significant factor that can affect mood. Mild dehydration is considered to be a loss of around 1.5% of the body’s natural water volume, but even a loss of 1% can begin to affect your mood, causing difficulties in concentration levels and even cause headaches – all of which can obviously negatively affect your mental health. Staying hydrated can improve your bodily functions, as well as being good for both weight loss and skin care, all of which could also improve your self-esteem and confidence.
If you are unsure about whether you have a healthy diet, there are a few ways you can find out. More often than not, our bodies are telling us what they need in order to be in optimal condition. If you keep a food diary of your meals as well as your cravings, you can start to pick apart which food groups you may not be getting enough of, or why you may be craving certain foods. It can be hard to see the effects of a good diet, especially as they are rarely immediate, but through keeping a journal it could help to show a correlation between your mood and your diet as well as being able to track your progress.
A couple of tell-tale signs of a bad diet are:
- Thin/brittle hair or pale/thin skin – changes in your hair and skin may suggest that you are lacking in either iron, folate or vitamin-c.
- Constipation – being unable to pass faeces could be a sign of dehydration or insufficient fibre in your diet.
- Low energy. Ironically, low energy can be caused by having too much sugar in your diet. It can make you feel very sluggish due to the sudden rise and falls of your blood sugar levels.
- Ridge/Spoon Shaped Nails – may indicate low levels of protein, calcium, or vitamins A, B6, C, or D.
- Feeling tired – may be caused by insufficient iron in your diet, which can lead to anaemia and fatigue.
- Dental Problems / Bleeding gums – may be caused by a lack of vitamin C and could lead to gingivitis.
- Easy Bruising / Slow Healing – you may be lacking in protein, vitamin C or K.
Changing eating habits is never easy, especially if you have a busy schedule and/or are on a low income or feeding many mouths. It is often far easier/cheaper to grab a convenient processed or fast food than maintain a healthy balanced diet. Planning meals in advance can help both with costs and ensuring each meal is nutritionally balanced. For some ideas check out this useful article.
This great video by the charity Mind provides additional information you may find useful:
Image courtesy of: