We have always known that what you consume has an impact on your physical health – but now experts have found that it can have a big effect on your mental wellbeing too.
This is real food for thought – a better diet really can make your mind healthy as well as your body.
So don’t think that naughty-but-nice slice of cake will cheer you up, because it has been proven for the first time that only a healthier intake of food will make you happier.
A new study of data from more than 45,000 people shows that cutting down your weight and eating a diet of reduced fats and increased nutrients can relieve the symptoms of depression.
Researchers from the University of Manchester in the UK combined information from 16 separate trials that looked at how diet affected depression and anxiety – and they found better food equaled a better mood.
Author of the study, Dr Joseph Firth said: “The overall evidence for the effects of diet on mood and mental well-being had up to now yet to be assessed. But our recent meta-analysis has done just that; showing that adopting a healthier diet can boost peoples’ mood. However, it has no clear effects on anxiety.”
The study – using data from 45,826 people – found that all types of dietary improvement appeared to have equal effects on mental health, with weight loss, fat reduction or nutrient-improving diets all having similar benefits for depressive symptoms.
“This is actually good news,” said Dr Firth. “The similar effects from any type of dietary improvement suggests that highly-specific or specialised diets are unnecessary for the average individual.
“Instead, just making simple changes is equally beneficial for mental health. In particular, eating more nutrient-dense meals which are high in fibre and vegetables, while cutting back on fast foods and refined sugars appears to be sufficient for avoiding the potentially negative psychological effects of a ‘junk food’ diet.”
Dr Brendon Stubbs, co-author of the study, added: “Our data add to the growing evidence to support lifestyle interventions as an important approach to tackle low mood and depression.
“Specifically, our results within this study found that when dietary interventions were combined with exercise, a greater improvement in depressive symptoms was experienced by people. Taken together, our data really highlight the central role of eating a healthier diet and taking regular exercise to act as a viable treatment to help people with low mood.”
And women can see bigger improvements than men, with studies examined with female samples showed even greater benefits from dietary interventions for symptoms of both depression and anxiety.
The new study backs up similar research done in isolation across the world, including one carried out in New Zealand in 2017, which found that patients with moderate to severe depression showed an improvement in their symptoms by eating a Mediterranean diet of fruit, vegetables, nuts, lean meats, seeds and seafood.
A Leeds University study also found a link with fruit and vegetable consumption and mental well-being, with its report stating: “Our findings provide further evidence that persuading people to consume more fruits and vegetables may not only benefit their physical health in the long run, but also their mental well-being in the short-run.”
British doctor and author, Dr Rangan Chatterjee, a regular health expert on BBC TV, has long been a believer that healthier eating can ease the symptoms of depression and boost mood.
He says: “It is amazing what can happen if you are currently consuming a lot of beige foods – empty carbs, pizzas, doughnuts, bread etc. It can be a pretty rapid change when you move to a whole food diet containing a lot of fresh produce, oily fish, quality red meat, nuts and seeds.
“I have seen some cases where fixing diet and eliminating sugar can lead to a complete resolution of depression symptoms. In other cases, it has been a significant factor in getting better.
“Changes to your diet can often create a domino effect where you then start to increase your physical activity levels, which have also shown to improve mood. Plus, many of my patients, when they’ve changed their diet, have started to feel better about themselves immediately, and this has led them to want to access other therapies like counseling or CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). In effect, diet changes can be a gateway to improving your overall wellbeing.”
In his blog, drchatterjee.com, the physician pinpoints five main ways to eat yourself mentally fitter…
Eliminate processed foods and highly refined carbohydrates – Processed foods are basically foods in a packet with a whole barrage of names and ingredients that you don’t recognise and cannot pronounce. Highly refined carbohydrates are foods like breakfast cereals (most of them!) and processed bread. These turn to sugar in the body very quickly and can have a detrimental effect on your mood.
Reduce your sugar intake – Adding sugar to food can have a negative effect on your mood. In addition, much of our sugar intake these days comes from drinks, both soft drinks and so-called healthy options such as fruit juices. Cutting out sugar can be hard at first but within weeks your taste buds will start to change. Try sticking to plain water, tea and coffee.
Increase your intake of healthy natural fats – Stabilise your blood sugar by eating more eggs, avocados, olives, nuts and seeds. I even find that good quality red meat can be hugely beneficial for some people suffering from depression.
Eat more seafood – Fatty fish such as wild salmon, anchovies, sardines and mackerel are brilliant sources of Omega-3 fats, which can be helpful for your brain function. You can also get Omega-3 from grass-fed beef and lamb. I do find that animal sources of Omega-3 tend to be more beneficial for my patients’ moods but vegetarians and vegans can also increase their intake by eating leafier green vegetables (e.g. kale), chia seeds, flax seeds and nuts. One of the best non-animal sources of Omega-3 fats is seaweed.
Eat more prebiotic fibre – There are trillions of gut bugs that live inside your gut. Some scientists call these the brain’s peacekeepers. The health and composition of these bugs play a critical role in determining your mood. The best way to increase them is to eat more plant fibre. Best sources are leeks, onions, garlic, artichokes and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower.