Practical tips to help you reach your health goals
Evidence for a link between what we eat and how we feel is fairly new. The first studies to be published on this were as recent as 2009. This new area is called “nutritional psychiatry.”
The relationships between foods and mental health are complex, and we’re just starting to understand them. While many studies show a link, all of them don’t.
As an example, one study concluded:
“Our data support the hypothesis that high dietary quality is associated with good emotional well-being.”(Meegan et. al, 2017)
What foods are associated with worse moods? These not-so-healthy dietary patterns include higher intakes of:
- Saturated fat and processed meats;
- Refined sugars and starches; and
- Fried and processed foods.
People who eat this way tend to report more mental health symptoms than those who eat a more health-promoting diet. And, several recent studies consider poor eating habits to be a risk factor for some mental health issues.
Not surprisingly, these not-so-healthy foods are also linked with higher inflammatory markers like CRP. And several studies show that improving the diet can reduce levels of CRP.
In fact, some studies show that the higher the “inflammatory factor” of the diet, the higher the risk for mental health issues.
One dietary pattern that’s been studied a lot is the Mediterranean diet. This diet includes a lot of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, fish, and olive oil. It also contains a lot of nutrients and fibre. Eating a Mediterranean-style diet is associated with lower levels of inflammatory markers and a reduced risk of mental health issues.
This complex association between food and mental health can also go both ways. Mental health symptoms can also influence appetite and food choices. And it’s likely that other factors such as obesity, exercise, food insecurity, and use of alcohol and tobacco are probably involved as well.
We don’t know exactly how these eating patterns affect mental health - inflammation is definitely one possibility. Nutrition can impact how our immune system functions, and this can affect levels of inflammation, and mental health issues. It could also be through the effects of the nutrients themselves, and even directly through the digestive system (microbiota-gut-brain axis).
Better foods for better moods
In fact, it’s not just “associations.” A recent clinical study found that when people start eating a healthier diet, they can actually reduce some of their mental health symptoms!
This study is particularly interesting. It’s called the SMILES trial.
The SMILES trial
What makes the results from the SMILES trial strong is that it was an actual experiment. It didn’t just ask people what they ate, measured their inflammatory markers, and what their symptoms were. It was “interventional” - people agreed to actually change the way they ate!
The researchers say:
“...this is the first RCT [randomized control trial] to explicitly seek to answer the question: If I improve my diet, will my mental health improve?”(Jacka et. al, 2017)
Here’s how it worked:
The SMILES trial recruited 67 people with depression and poor dietary quality to a trial for 12-weeks. These were people who reported a high intake of sweets, processed meats, and salty snacks; and a low intake of vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and dietary fibre.
Half of them were asked to:
- Eat more vegetables, whole grains, fruit, legumes, low-fat unsweetened dairy, raw and unsalted nuts, fish, lean red meat, chicken, eggs and olive oil; and
- Eat less sweets, refined grains, fried food, fast food, processed meats and sugary drinks; and,
- Drink no more than 2 glasses of wine per day (with meals, preferably red wine).
This half of the participants who upgraded their diet were also given seven professional nutrition counselling sessions.
The other half of the people in the SMILES trial were given social support. They were “befriended” and discussed sports or news, or played cards or board games. There was no nutrition support, nor any dietary recommendations given to people in this group.
The researchers found that in 12-weeks the people who improved their diet actually also improved some mental health symptoms! They said:
“We report significant reductions in depression symptoms as a result of this intervention… The results of this trial suggest that improving one’s diet according to current recommendations targeting depression may be a useful and accessible strategy for addressing depression in both the general population and in clinical settings.”(Jacka et. al, 2017)
It would be great for other, larger trials to confirm these results. In the meantime, eating a more health-promoting diet is helpful for so many conditions, not just mental health conditions!
Better nutrition for better moods
Is there something special in these foods that may help with moods?
We know the brain needs enough of all essential nutrients in order to function properly. And insufficient levels are linked with the stress response and the immune response.
Eating nutrient-dense foods is the best way to get nutrition. Foods are complex combinations of nutrients. Supplementing with individual nutrients is not the same as eating a healthy diet.
Berk, M., Williams, L. J., Jacka, F. N., O’Neil, A., Pasco, J. A., Moylan, S., … Maes, M. (2013). So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from? BMC Medicine, 11, 200. http://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-11-200 LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3846682/ Dash, S. R., O’Neil, A., & Jacka, F. N. (2016). Diet and Common Mental Disorders: The Imperative to Translate Evidence into Action. Frontiers in Public Health, 4, 81. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2016.00081 LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4850164/
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MUGA is a Community based Fun and Fitness movement created by the Mauritius Telecom Foundation. Its mission is to promote healthy living through physical activity and education for all segments of the population. MUGA aims to achieve its objective by creating sustainable infrastructure, promoting activities through the use of technology and leveraging on the active collaboration of the government, local authorities and community.