Eat your way to better mental health 

Diet and mental health

A recent report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has revealed that more Australians are now prescribed medication for mental illness than ever before. Yet, the Royal Commission into mental health concluded that there is an overdependence on medication as a form of treatment.

The statistics on mental health issues among Australians are astonishing. According to Beyond Blue, one-quarter of the population will experience an anxiety condition at some point in their lives. And there are several treatment options, including medication, social support, counselling, music and art therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and meditation. The concurrent use of multiple treatments can enhance the intended outcome. 

Diet and mental health

However, new and exciting research shows that our mental health can be strongly influenced by what we eat. Diet may be just one piece of the multifaceted puzzle of mental health, but it is promising that we may be able to eat our way to better mental health. 

It’s important to note that the overall quality of our diets matters most, not single nutrients or foods. We need to see nutrition and our diets through a wider lens.

Good for mental health

The research

Recent research in nutritional psychiatry shows that adopting a healthy diet, particularly the Mediterranean Diet, can ease depressive symptoms and enhance our mental well-being. 

The Mediterranean Diet primarily consists of plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, oily fish, legumes, nuts and seeds and whole grains. The primary fat source in the diet is extra virgin olive oil.

Much of the research focuses on how our diets impact the diverse colonies of bacteria that live in our digestive systems. Studies are also examining the role of foods that appear to help fight inflammation and also help to reduce the severity and prevalence of depressive symptoms.

Several studies have shown that a good quality diet is generally associated with a better mood. However, one recent study – The SMILES trial (Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States) – revealed that there is, in fact, a clear cause and effect relationship between our food intake and mental health. Research participants who ate a modified Mediterranean Diet performed better with their depressive symptoms than those in a social support group. These findings were noted after only three months.

These latest developments excite nutrition professionals like me. Diet can be an effective tool in someone’s extensive arsenal to help them combat or better manage their depression and anxiety.

Nutrition for good mental health

What should we eat?

Dietary diversity is critical. The more variety we have in our diets, the more diverse the nutrient supply. Aim for plenty of different coloured fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains and legumes. 

Sadly, we as a nation drop the ball when it comes to meeting our fruit, vegetable and whole grain intake.

Fruit and vegetables are the cornerstones of good health. Increasing our intake of these foods will reduce our risk factors for disease, help us maintain a healthy weight, and play a key role in staving off depression and anxiety.

Meanwhile, whole grains such as whole wheat, rye, oats, brown rice and maize should be a staple in the diet. After all, they are full of nutrients such as B vitamins, iron, folate, low GI carbohydrates, fibre and even protein.

Another key dietary component showing a strong mood-enhancing effect is omega 3 fatty acids. They’ve long been heralded as playing an essential role in heart health, but recent evidence shows they can also positively impact our mood. Omega 3s can target specific brain pathways, but new research shows they can improve the bacterial diversity in our gut. Sources of omega 3 fatty acids include oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, while vegetarian sources include walnuts and chia seeds.

The evidence is both heartening and uplifting. Foods that have long been considered helpful for your heart also appear good for your brain.

Boosting your mental health may be a mouthful away. And this news may help to encourage clinicians to prescribe diet and lifestyle modification as a first-line treatment for depression and anxiety, rather than reaching for the prescription pad.

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