What is the relationship between diet and mental health? The food we eat can boost our mood and brain function, here’s how:
There is a strong connection between what we eat and how we feel and all of us have experienced this in some way. Foods can evoke feelings of pleasure, comfort or guilt. Food can make us feel safe and healthy and a lack of food can make us feel angry, desperate or distressed. There is no denying the emotional attachment that food and eating has. We now also know, that food can impact our brain function and risk of chronic brain and neurological disease.
For decades, the Mediterranean Diet has received noteriety for having health benefits associated with reducing cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer (1). This has been in large part attributed to the high plant-based content of the diet, abundant use of olive oil, lower presence of red-meat and processed foods, and frequent intake of fish, legumes, and wholegrains. Another diet that has attracted attention in health journals is the DASH diet – dietary approaches to stop hypertension. The reduced salt content of this diet helps lower hypertension associated with cardiovascular disease. However, more recently there has been growing interest in eating for brain health and reducing chronic brain disease like Alzheimers through food and diet. Introducing the MIND diet.
“The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) Diet is associated with less cognitive decline and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s Disease” (2)
In essence, the MIND diet is a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. It consists of a more specifically defined list of healthful versus non-healthful foods that effect brain health than the Mediterranean diet on its own. The MIND diet emphasizes natural plant-based foods and limited intakes of animal foods and foods high in saturated fat (2). Uniquely, the MIND diet also specifies the consumption of berries and green leafy vegetables as a priority. The foods considered important within the MIND diet include: leafy green vegetables, other vegetables, berries, olive oil, fish, beans, nuts and lean poultry. Foods minimised include pastries and sweets. (2-5)
With Health Breaks health and wellbeing programs, no one diet is promoted as being the one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. Instead, we promote lessons learned around the globe and share health evidence captured in peer-reviewed research. The main take-aways from such research, that also underpins the Australian Dietary Guidelines, is the high presence of plant foods, wholegrains, nuts and legumes, dairy and lean animal proteins (6). The other main takeaway is that the more food variety from these food types the better the health benefits will be.
Health benefits of foods that we eat are highly important as we have highlighted. However, there is more to it. The way we eat also impacts our mental health. This includes eating mindfully, with appreciation for the flavours, textures and sensations food brings. It also includes the social environment, setting and occasions packaged into the food experiences in our lives. Eating with family and friends and using food as a part of celebrations has mental health benefits too.
Also, sometimes it’s completely okay to eat purely for pleasure, with no focus on the functionality of the food eaten. Pleasure is positive for mental wellbeing.
Let’s not forget, one of the most crucial aspects of the Mediterranean diet is moderation. This approach will positively support mental wellbeing, as it reduces the risk of feeling guilt, shame, and failure associated with restrictive eating plans.
The Health Breaks Healthy Gut Program provides nutritonal education on the physical and mental health benefits of foods. The program addresses the gut-brain axis and the importance of pre-biotics in the form of plant foods and probiotics in the form of fermented foods. The meal plans and recipes are inspired by the Mediterranean, DASH and MIND diets and does not ‘ban’ any type of food. Importantly, food is not the complete answer. Other lifestyle factors such as exercise, sleep and water intake also weigh into the equation. As such, our programs always address mind, body, and food. Here are a few of our recipes in our Healthy Gut Program.
Author: Kristin McMaster, Masters in Nutrition