Increasingly research is suggesting there is a link between mental health and diet. The body and the mind are linked. Diet affects levels of neurotransmitters that influence mood, sleep, activity and motivation. In addition a poor diet can make us feel tired, sluggish and flat. This can increase feelings of depression. People sometimes also get depressed if they are overweight, due to negative feelings about their body.
For good mental health follow these dietary tips.
Eat a diet that is high in unprocessed foods i.e. foods which are close to how they appear in nature. Examples of unprocessed foods are meats, fish, eggs, milk, tofu, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains such as oats, brown rice and grain substitutes such as quinoa. Some foods such as cheese and milk undergo some processing but are still quite healthy.
- Avoid highly processed foods. This includes most packaged foods, fried foods, take-away, lollies, sugar, alcohol etc. For example, it is better to buy plain Greek yoghurt and add some fruit, nuts or honey at home than it is to buy an already packaged and flavoured yoghurt in the supermarket as these usually have more additives and sweeteners than you would add at home. Many purchased bakery products, including breads, are now highly processed and unlike the healthy traditional foods they once were. Eat sweet foods and alcohol as special treats, not as part of your daily diet.
- Eat protein with every meal, including snacks. Eat protein from a variety of sources including eggs, meats, fish, milk, cheese, Greek yoghurt, tofu, tempeh, quinoa and legumes. Some research suggests increasing protein in the diet may be linked to reduced anxiety and depression. Amino acids in protein foods are precursors for neurotransmitters that control mood. (Precursors are chemicals that help make another chemical.)
- Healthy fats are strongly associated with good mental health. It is especially important to increase your intake of omega-3 and 6 fats. These are found in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, pink rainbow trout, anchovy and tuna. They are also found in flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts. However non-animal sources of these fats do not appear to be as well absorbed as animal sources.
- Eat at regular intervals and don’t skip meals or snacks. Dips in blood sugar are associated with changes in moods such as depression and anxiety and also affect concentration and memory.
- Consider supplements of Vitamin Bs, magnesium and Zinc to reduce anxiety. Vitamin D and Fish oil supplementation are linked to improved mental health and reduced depression.
- Chromium and Selenium deficiencies are linked to depression and anxiety. Brazil nuts are high in selenium and only 4-5 nuts can help make up dietary requirements. Chromium is found in wholefoods such as corn, sweet potato and apples. However chromium is depleted by a diet high in white grains, flours and sugars. There is some controversy around the use of selenium and chromium supplements. While these may be an option, it generally appears safest to try and get these micronutrients through diet.
- Always combine a healthy diet with regular exercise. Exercise has been shown to have a significant positive effect on depression, stress and anxiety.
- This is a general guide only. Consider seeing a nutritionist/dietician for expert advice.