By Dr Sarah R Dash
Whether we’re reading about it, shopping for it, preparing it or eating it, food is a big part of our day-to-day lives. While everyone’s got to eat, I’ve always found myself particularly interested in food; not only the joys of preparing and eating it, or learning how it fuels us physically, but also about how food makes us feel. My questions about food and nutrition are shared by many health researchers – for example, if I improve my diet, will my mood improve? It’s not until fairly recently that science had begun to provide the answers.
Many of us intuitively understand the food-mood connection (think comfort food or a celebratory meal), yet the scientific evidence in this area has somewhat lagged behind conventional wisdom. In the past decade or so, however, there have been many studies from around the world that have consistently shown what many of us suspected; diet is important to mental health. For example, studies from Spain, Norway, Australia and the US have all shown that following a healthy, ‘traditional’ dietary pattern, consisting of the foods we know to be good for us (colourful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and healthy fats) is protective of your mental health. The unfortunate, and perhaps unsurprising news is that the reverse appears to be true as well; unhealthy, processed ‘junk’ foods are not only bad news for our waistlines or hearts, but for our mental health too.
The burden of common mental disorders touches us all on some level; whether we are medical professionals, carers, relatives, or affected personally. While traditional treatments like medication or therapy are life changing for some who experience depression or anxiety, many are looking to incorporate other methods of mood management. A good quality diet, for example, is an important and practical way to promote mental health. Not only is our diet something that is relatively within our control (unlike, say, our genetics), it’s something we’re already doing multiple times a day – eating! Now that the scientific evidence has ‘caught up’ in supporting the diet-mental health link, it’s important to think about ways that we can encourage healthy, good quality diets for the prevention and treatment of common mental disorders.
It’s an exciting time to be a nutritional psychiatry researcher! Science is beginning to uncover the ways that we might use ‘food as thy medicine’ to prevent and perhaps even treat common mental disorders. As we continue to learn how to keep our bodies and brains as healthy as possible, it’s important that the findings of new research are shared and talked about in a way that is useful, easy to understand, and gives us the tools to protect our mental health from the comfort of our own kitchens. At the Food and Mood Centre, we are actively investigating many aspects of nutrition and mental health, and this blog will aim to discuss, unpack (and even myth bust) some of the emerging science on the diet-mental health relationship, and discuss the ways we might apply what we are learning from the world’s leading researchers in our own lives and meals. Though our mental health is a product of a complex puzzle of risk factors and behaviours, we hope to share useful information, backed by science, to encourage a healthy diet for the promotion of mental health.