Food for thought | The role of nutrition in mental health

nutrition and mental health: plate of food on wooden board

Does the food that we eat have an effect on our mental health?

Yes, there is plenty of research around the topic of nutrition and mental health, and overall, the findings point to a link between our diet and our mental wellbeing.

In this article, we look at the role nutrition plays in our mental health and explore some of the research surrounding the topic.

Nutrition and mental health

Nutrition is a big field, and it can sometimes feel overwhelming to navigate. There’s lots of advice available, and guidance on what we should and shouldn’t be eating that can change frequently.

In general, the two most important things that we can do for our mental health include staying hydrated and eating a varied, balanced diet.

The Eatwell Guide from Public Health England recommends that everyone should aim to drink 6-8 glasses of fluid a day, based on Government advice. Water, milk, squash, tea and coffee all count towards the recommended daily intake. Try to limit caffeine intake as there is a potential link between high caffeine intake and anxiety.

Fruit juices and smoothies also count towards the daily intake; however, they should be limited to one small glass per day.

This is because when fruits or vegetables are juiced/blended into smoothies, the sugars that they contain are released, which means that they can potentially cause more damage to our teeth than whole fruits and vegetables where the sugar is contained.

The Eatwell Guide also offers guidance on how to eat a balanced diet. The guide is split into 5 main food groups – fruit and veg, starchy foods, dairy products, proteins, and fats – and explains how much of our overall diet should be obtained from each of these groups.

You can download a full copy of the Eatwell Guide here.

As we know, our diet can have an effect on our mood and feelings. This video from Mind offers 8 top tips to help explore the link between what we eat and how we feel:

There are lots of top tips for nutrition and mental health, not just around what we eat, but how we eat too.

Mindful eating

Mindful eating involves really paying attention to the food we’re eating and being present in the moment. Every time you eat, notice the smell, the taste, the texture, the flavour. Remove any distractions, and take your time to really enjoy and appreciate each mouthful.

Slowing down at meal times allows us to become more aware of our feelings of hunger and fullness, which can help prevent over-eating. This practice can also allow us to distinguish between emotional eating, which many of us may do when we’re feeling sad and low, and physical hunger.

Other benefits of mindful eating include:

  • Stress reduction (mindful activities such as mindful eating can reduce cortisol (aka the stress hormone) levels in the body.)
  • Increased food satisfaction
  • Improved digestion
  • A better relationship with food overall
How diet affects mental health

There are numerous studies that have examined the link between nutrition and mental health and the effect our diet has on our wellbeing.

Interestingly, research shows that the food we eat can result in epigenetic modifications (changes in the patterns of chemical modifications on DNA).

In a review conducted by Aaron J. Stevens et al., 2017, they looked at the research on the link between diet and epigenetics, and the role epigenetics play in the development and treatment of mental health conditions.

Current research around the topic is limited, however, it shows that epigenetic factors contribute to both the development and treatment of mental health conditions, meaning that nutrition could play a role. There is growing research around the topic to determine whether using nutrition to bring about epigenetic change is a reasonable treatment for mental health disorders.

In more general terms, research has also been conducted around nutrition and mental health conditions and the possibility of altering our diets to reduce the risk of certain conditions.

A review of 21 studies based in various different countries, conducted by Ye Li et al in 2017, found that individuals who followed a Western-style diet (characterised by a high consumption of red and/or processed meat, refined grains, high-fat dairy products, and potatoes combined with a low intake of fruit and veg) were at a higher risk of depression than individuals who didn’t follow a Western-style diet.

Another study conducted on the dietary patterns of Greek adults over the age of 50 found a possible link between a diet high in saturated fat and added sugars, and high levels of anxiety.

In 2019, Preeti Khanna et al. conducted a systematic review of the nutritional aspects of depression. The review involved 56 studies and was focused on the adolescent age group. The findings showed that a diet high in ‘healthy’ foods – such as fish, nuts, legumes, and fruit and veg – was associated with a reduced risk of depression during adolescence.

Research into nutrition and mental health is continuing to grow, and new links and patterns are continually being highlighted and discovered. This is a positive step in finding new ways to treat mental health conditions and potentially reduce the risk of developing certain conditions.

Overall our nutrition has the potential to influence our mental health both positively and negatively. Eating a balanced diet filled with rich, nutritious whole foods is key, as it can help not only to improve our mood, but to potentially prevent the development of certain mental health conditions too.



Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash.

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