The diet that will improve your mental health.
An area of research that I can’t get enough of is the relationship between mental health and food.
A recent study I read suggested that current treatments are only able to reduce the disease burden of depression by one third. ONE THIRD. I find this compelling evidence to suggest we should also be paying attention to certain lifestyle factors that may be affecting our mental health.
I’ll be honest, I have some regrets about my diet before I studied nutrition. I ate like a five year old would eat if they had free reign of the supermarket aisles. Macaroni cheese, powdered mashed potato and lamingtons were my staples. Coincidentally, at this time I also was extremely lethargic, moody and anxious.
After making some changes to my diet and lifestyle, I began to feel like a completely different person. I had more clarity, energy and optimism. My anxiety didn’t disappear completely, but it became far more manageable. This transformation continues to inspire my journey in nutrition.
If you feel like you are in a rut with your mental health, make sure you’re practicing good mental hygiene. This is so important and can make a huge impact on how you are able to cope when life inevitably throws you a curveball.
Am I getting 7-9 hours of sleep every night?
Am I moving my body for at least 30 minutes every day?
Do I spend 10-20 mins outside each day?
Have I got support around me; friends or family?
Do I connect with at least one person every day?
Do I take 10 minutes of quiet time to unwind and reflect daily?
Do I drink alcohol in moderation?
Is my diet working for me?
If the answer is no to any of the questions above, make it a priority to change your lifestyle where possible.
There is a growing body of research indicating that we can make some real changes to our mental health through diet.
I never like to recommend one particular diet because I think we should all find our own personal style of eating. What works for me, might not work for you, and that’s totally fine. I just won’t invite you over for dinner.
Having said that, it’s interesting to look at specific diets to help us try to work out, generally speaking, what strategies might be beneficial for us to implement.
The Mediterranean diet has, time and time again, shown the greatest outcomes with regard to improving mental health. Based on this diet, I’ve created some key tips you can implement into your own diet.
1. Get your omega 3s.
A number of studies have suggested that there is a relationship between omega 3 intake and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive decline, depression and anxiety.
Where do I get my omega 3s?
Fatty fish such as salmon, trout, sardines and mackerel are great sources. Two to three serves a week is recommended. Fish oil capsules are a good alternative if you’re not into fish. Walnuts, linseeds/flaxseeds and hemp seeds contain omega 3s, but be aware that the body does not absorb as much omega 3s from these foods compared to fish.
2. Love thy lord, our saviour: fibre.
This is not the first, nor last time you will hear me talk about fibre. I know it’s the most boring, least trendy topic in the world. But it’s my life mission to make fibre great again. You know when someone mentions that trendy word, prebiotics? You know what that is? It’s fibre! Fibre literally feeds the good bacteria in your gut. It’s kind of amazing.
If you improve your gut health, there’s a good chance this will benefit your mental health. However, let me save you the money you were going to spend on that gut health book. At this stage, really the only thing research has indicated we can do to improve our gut health is to eat more fibre. The rest is a confusing, contradicting mess of statistics. Check out my next blog post if you want to know more about gut health.
Best sources of fibre?
All fruits and vegetables, legumes (aka beans) and wholegrains such as brown rice, brown rice noodles, quinoa, barley, oats wholemeal pasta and wholemeal bread.
3. Micronutrients are your best friend.
First and foremost, go to the doctor and ask for a nutrient analysis of your blood to identify any deficiencies. Nutrient deficiencies can be responsible for mood swings, fatigue and feelings of despair. Get your bloods done every two to three years to check how you are tracking.
In addition to dealing with any deficiencies, make sure you are getting a varied diet with lots of micronutrients. Inflammatory molecules in the blood are thought to contribute to mood disorders, and micronutrients have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, acting to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. It’s a beautiful thing and has real potential to affect your day-to-day mental wellbeing.
How do I get more micronutrients?
Eat the rainbow. Micronutrients provide the pigment that gives fruits and veg their different colours. When you consume an array of different micronutrients, these can work together to have a synergistic effect - enhancing the health benefits even further. Credit where credit is due; mother nature is a genius.
Try a new fruit or vegetable each week, or change it up by eating seasonally. Cooking food can make certain micronutrients easier for us to absorb, whilst destroying others. To get the the most out of your food, eat both cooked and raw ingredients.
The constant battle with mental health can be tiresome, but please remember you are a resilient and incredible creature. You will surprise yourself with what you are able to overcome. If diet or lifestyle changes have helped you in your mental health journey, I would love to hear your story in the comments section below.
Hooper, C., De Souto Barreto, P., Pahor, M., Weiner, M., & Vellas, B. (2018). The Relationship of Omega 3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Red Blood Cell Membranes with Cognitive Function and Brain Structure: A Review Focussed on Alzheimer’s Disease. The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease, 5(1), 78-84. doi:10.14283/jpad.2017.19
Hallahan, B., Ryan, T., Hibbeln, J., Murray, I., Glynn, S., Ramsden, C., . . . Davis, J. (2016). Efficacy of omega-3 highly unsaturated fatty acids in the treatment of depression. British Journal of Psychiatry, 209(3), 192-201. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.114.160242
Rooney, C., McKinley, M., & Woodside, J. (2016). A systematic review of the potential role of fruit and vegetables in depression. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 75(OCE3), E162. doi:10.1017/S0029665116001774
Lassale, C., Batty, G. D., Baghdadli, A., Jacka, F., Sánchez-Villegas, A., Kivimäki, M., & Akbaraly, T. (2018). Healthy dietary indices and risk of depressive outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Molecular Psychiatry. doi:10.1038/s41380-018-0237-8
Miki, T., Eguchi, M., Kurotani, K., Kochi, T., Kuwahara, K., Ito, R., . . . Mizoue, T. (2016). Dietary fiber intake and depressive symptoms in Japanese employees: The Furukawa Nutrition and Health Study. Nutrition, 32(5), 584-589. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2015.11.014