Mental Health Awareness Week

Can our diet influence our mental health?

It's mental health awareness week across the whole of the UK so what better time to chat about how our food can influence our mental health.

The foods we eat and more importantly the dietary patterns we consume over time can influence our mood, energy, clarity of thinking and risk of or severity of anxiety or depression.

Which diet should we follow?

No surprises here but research shows that the Mediterranean diet is the most effective dietary pattern in treating or improving mood, depression and anxiety. The most impactful research into this came from a study called the SMILES trial (check it out if you’re interested in this topic) which found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet can act as a treatment for depression and in some cases was more effective than traditional treatment options.

The good news is the Mediterranean diet is relatively simple (no complicated point systems or technical meal plans).
It includes lean meat, oily fish, nuts, seeds, an abundance of fruit and veg and high fibre grains and legumes (lentils, beans, pulses). The main feature is minimally high processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, sugar free snacks or highly flavoured products. Instead it's all about colour, fibre and good quality meat & fish.

Why does diet impact our mental health?

It would be easy to go down a deep rabbit hole here and write for days but there are two main areas that link diet and mood.

One is gut health, the other is inflammation.

The bacteria in our gut are responsible for producing many of the chemicals that our brain needs to thrive. Serotonin is a fantastic example of this, also known as the “happy hormone” serotonin helps stabilise mood and 90-95% of this is produced in the gut and travels to the brain via what’s known as the gut-brain axis (essentially a superhighway connecting the gut and the base of the brain).  

Bacteria also produce compounds called short-chain fatty acids which are linked with lower inflammation levels and better brain health. Looking after the bacteria in our gut and optimising its diversity and health is super important. One of the best ways to do this is to follow a diet rich in fibre, fruit, veg, legumes and healthy fats…just like the Mediterranean diet!

Chronic high levels of inflammation in the diet is linked to an increased risk of depression and poor mental health and one thing that can influence inflammation is our diet. Consistent consumption of foods which are high in salt, sugar and processed fats is pro-inflammatory and can influence our mental health. Some research has found that nutrient lacking Western diets can even influence the size of certain parts of the brain.

3 Tips for optimising your diet

Adopt a more Mediterranean way of eating. Include colour and variety of plant foods, increase fibre and include healthy fats from Olive oil, nuts & seeds

Think about how you eat. Can you prioritise sitting down and eating, not eating in a rush and not eating whilst standing or walking about. This will help those gut bacteria thrive and help you enjoy your food more too
Can you swap 1 or 2 high sugar/fat “junk” foods for something fresh or with more fibre and colour

Final note

Making diet changes if you are experiencing anxiety, low mood or depression can be super difficult and food acts as much more than simply nutrients in/out. Don’t put pressure on changing everything and often thinking about what you can add to the diet rather than take away can be much more positive!

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