It’s widely known that how we fuel and move our bodies can influence our physical health, and of great interest to the Food & Mood Centre, it can also influence our mental health. We also now know that the factors influencing what we eat and how we engage in physical activity are incredibly varied and complex.

An individual who maintains a healthy diet and who is highly active, for example, may experience great difficulties if moved to an environmental setting that does not promote and support such health behaviors. That particular environment is itself influenced by political, cultural and wider societal factors, which means that in order to study health; we need to look beyond behaviors, knowledge and attitudes.

As an example, a child who experiences healthful dietary practices at home may develop unhealthful diet when exposed to a school canteen that stocks processed, fast-foods low in nutritional content. The availability of these foods may be due to high costs of healthful wholefoods, and profit-driven external canteen providers. Efforts to improve this child’s diet may therefore be most successful if we look beyond the individual and family level, to also consider the environment in which the behavior occurs.

Similarly, our mental health is believed to be a product of interconnecting individual, family, societal and wider political factors. For everything science has not yet been able to achieve, it is universally accepted that we humans are very complex.

Understanding the complex factors that drive health outcomes is of great interest if we are to harness and leverage such behaviors for improved mental health outcomes. Much of the research into this area has emerged from non-communicable disease prevention.  These chronic conditions, often referred to as lifestyle driven diseases, progress slowly over time, are not caused by infectious agents, and are highly prevalent (e.g., obesity, cardiovascular/heart disease, lung disease, diabetes).

Research in obesity prevention has moved towards embracing complexity through the application of systems science. A systems approach assumes the drivers of behavior are multi-facetted, unpredictable over time, and can be reciprocal in terms of reinforcing one another. A systems approach would assume that any attempt to improve dietary patterns must also consider the various driving factors and environmental forces within which behaviour occurs.

The Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University is pioneering in its approach to obesity prevention through developing community-specific initiatives to childhood obesity through a systems lens. Their research program aims to identify and improve environments for young people in close partnership with community leaders from within the ‘system’. Preliminary findings suggest that improving food and activity environments through this approach may hold important preventive benefits for mental and emotional health outcomes among young people.

Although this approach is largely accepted as a promising way forward, there are multiple and sometimes differing opinions in terms of how such an approach is accurately defined, developed and implemented. There are also specific considerations needed for such an approach for mental health. Any potential benefits of a lifestyle behaviors must be considered alongside the other known risk factors for mental disorders, and also account for the varying unique needs of individuals living with such disorders.

However, we arguably have access to eating and activity behaviors daily which makes a lifestyle approach highly unique from other potential prevention options. If we recognise the complex system of the world around us, harness opportunities to make positive healthful decisions, we may find physical and mental health benefits that may not have otherwise been achieved. Which could be an extremely worthy endeavor.

Dr Erin Hoare is a current Australian Rotary Health Postdoctoral Fellow leading a collaborative research project between Global Obesity Centre and the Food and Mood Centre.