Science has repeatedly reinforced the notion that the foods we eat have a major impact on our physical health, but now sound mental health from diet is playing a part
For example, research reveals that for every 150 kcal of sugar consumed per person daily — which is roughly the amount of sugar in one can of soda — the prevalence of diabetes in that population increases 1.1%. Diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association, subtracts from a person’s sound mental health by adding a later of anxiety, which can also result in anger, depression, or denial of illness.
Other studies indicate that the risk of hypertension goes up if too many salty foods are part of a person’s regular meal plan, further suggesting that reducing salt consumption from the current normal intake of 9-12 grams per day to 5-6 grams daily offers positive cardiovascular effects.
While these types of scientific findings are generally well-accepted, researchers are now also making a connection between food and sound mental health. And they’re proving that the age-old adage of ‘you are what you eat’ likely applies to the brain as well as to the body.
Depression, anxiety and diet
The Anxiety & Depression Association of America reports that anxiety disorders affect roughly 40 million adult Americans. That makes these the most common mental illness in the country today, often co-occurring with depression. While genetics, brain chemistry and life events can all potentially instigate mental health issues, diet may play a role as well.
A 2017 systematic review of 20 studies noted that, despite somewhat contradictory findings, there does seem to be an association between a higher-quality diet and better mental health. Similarly, if diet quality is poor, sound mental health is unlikely.
On June 3, 2021, PLoS One published a cross-sectional study that sought to better understand the impact of three of the most common eating patterns on mental health. The diet patterns analyzed were a plant-based diet, an animal-based diet and a junk food diet.
After surveying 339 undergraduate college students, researchers reported a “significant positive association” between a junk food diet and depression and anxiety. This same association was not found for participants who reported eating primarily plant or animal foods.
The connection between diet and sound mental health
A 2020 review in the journal Antioxidants shares that the link between food and brain health is somewhat complex. Some of the connection likely exists due to communication that occurs between the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis.
The theory behind the gut-brain axis is that foods consumed can potentially change the messages being sent or received, ultimately impacting mental health. The 2020 review adds that some foods can also increase inflammation or oxidative stress in the body, potentially affecting cognitive function as a result.
A 2021 article in Modern Trends in Psychiatry further states that there also appears to be a connection between certain nutrients and mental health. Among the nutrients mentioned were fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and psychobiotics (probiotics with mental health benefits).
Diet as a mental health treatment
Some studies even suggest that dietary changes may aid in the treatment of certain mental health conditions. One example is a 2018 study conducted on a Mediterranean-style diet. The Mediterranean diet is high in vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish and olive oil. It’s also low in red meat, sugar and processed foods.
This study involved 95 subjects between the ages of 18-65 who reported that they were depressed. At three months, those eating a Mediterranean-style diet had reduced their depression more than individuals not following this type of eating plan. They also had improved mental health scores.
Researchers noted that the most impactful foods for improving depression and mental health appeared to be vegetables and legumes. Though, increases in omega-3 and decreases in omega-6 seemed to have a positive effect too.
A 2015 systematic review of 17 randomized controlled trials came to a similar conclusion. It reported that some evidence does exist that diet can help improve depression treatment outcomes.
Depression may not be the only mental health issue that diet can play a role in treating. Another 2015 study suggests that, while research is limited, it appears that there is also a relationship between diet and bipolar disorder, resulting in “significant treatment implications” since this mental health condition often exists in combination with a physical disease.
Cause vs. effect
The question that remains is whether a causal link exists. Do one’s food choices cause mental health issues or do people with mental health conditions simply tend to have different eating patterns? Science has yet to find an answer, but research evidence is pointing the way..
Giving the body the macro and micronutrients it needs to function optimally helps it do just that. So, even if eating healthy, nutrient-packed food doesn’t directly prevent or treat mental illness, it still offers many beneficial effects for a sound mental health status.