Why diet plays a part in our mental wellbeing
It is Mental Health Awareness Week. And it is probably fair to say that the past year has raised our awareness on how fragile and crucial our mental wellbeing is.
Whether we had pre-existing mental health issues or not, we have all been exposed to some form of stress, anxiety, fear, fatigue, anger, feeling of hopelessness, or even depression over the last few months.
Impact of the pandemic on the UK mental health
If, today, we are feeling a bit less anxious than a year ago (42% of the UK population reported ‘Feeling anxious or worried’ as a result of the pandemic in February 2021 compared to 65% back in April 2020), the past months have left us in a state of great fatigue (only 64% of UK population reported ‘coping well’ or ‘fairly well in February 2021, and this number was down to 50% for the 18-24 years old).
Some more or less positive coping strategies
To face the pandemic’s challenges, people have deployed some great coping strategies: reconnecting with nature, walking outdoors, getting enough sleep, exercising.
But, as the recent Zoe study “Impact of COVID-19 on health behaviours” demonstrated, some of us turned to less useful coping mechanisms such as snacking or drinking a bit more alcohol. And a lot of people report having gained weight over the past year (34% of participants gained in average 3.5kg).
We all know that turning to food is a powerful way to manage emotions, whether it is stress, sadness or boredom - the effect of a gooey chocolate brownie is undeniable… but, unfortunately, short-lived.
So, yes to the occasional brownie, but let’s also look at other foods we could include in our diet to achieve long-term beneficial impact on our mood.
Good foods for our mood
Better to think about the overall diet rather than specific foods
There isn’t one type of food that is superior to the others. Yes, courgettes might have more of a “healthful” halo than brownies, but we all know that if we only eat courgette, it won’t be long until we fall apart.
This is because the body is a complex machine, requiring just the right amount of energy and an array of nutrients in various quantity.
So first and foremost, for good physical and mental wellbeing, we need a varied and balanced diet, full of nutritious foods.
A diet that has been studied in relation to mental health is the Mediterranean diet with encouraging findings - it reduces depression score among people suffering from depression.
So, a diet rich in wholesome plant-based food (fruit and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds), with a good amount of olive oil, a bit of dairy and fish, the occasional meat and glass of red wine, whilst poor in refined sugars and highly processed foods, seems to be a sensible bet.
We should aim to eat 2 portions of fish a week, and one of which should be an oily fish (e.g. sardines, mackerel, trout, salmon). This is because these are the best sources of omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), a type of fat that may play a role in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety .
For vegetarians and vegans, good sources of omega 3 are walnuts, linseeds, chia seeds, rapeseed oil – but these might not be as potent as fish sources as they provide only ALA fatty acids that then need to be converted into EPA or DHA by the body. A safer bet would be to use a food supplement made from algae.
Meat (a bit)
I know, this is not what we want to hear nowadays. And don’t get me wrong, eating in a sustainable way, should be a priority for us all. But when it comes to mental health, eating a bit of meat might be beneficial.
A systematic review of the research has reported higher risk of depression, anxiety and self-harm behaviours in people who avoided meat. It would be far-fetched to conclude that a lack of meat in our diet would cause depression as there are numerous possible confounding factors.
Yet, there might be something in meat that is good for our mood. Meat is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid known as the precursor for serotonin, the happiness hormone. It is also a good source of selenium, a mineral for which low levels have been associated with anxiety and depression.
Pulses include all kinds of beans (soybeans, pinto, butter, black or kidney beans), peas (split peas, chickpeas) and lentils (red, yellow, green, Puy lentils).
These foods are really rich in dietary fibre, providing food for the good bacteria in our guts. A happy gut microbiota makes a happy host: As micro-organisms feast on the fibre in our large intestine, they release short-chain fatty acids which modulate our immune function and stimulate the secretion of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and GABA, giving a little lift to our mood .
Plenty of fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables are full of dietary fibre, giving our gut microbiota the food to thrive on. But they are also fantastic sources of polyphenols which are plant-based compounds with powerful antioxidant properties. These polyphenols, through the modulation of our gut microbiota, have a well-established therapeutic effect against depression and on stress resilience .
A bit of daily sun (or a Vitamin D3 supplement)
Vitamin D plays a role in our mood – low levels of the “sunshine” vitamin have been frequently observed in people with depression. An intervention with supplementation of Vitamin D, in addition to other treatments, have shown to have beneficial effect on depression symptoms… only if the levels of vitamin D were low at baseline . If your levels are good, taking more vitamin D is unlikely to help.
But since it is estimated that 60% of UK population presents suboptimal vitamin D levels, and 1 in 5 has low levels, it is certainly a good idea to focus on getting the right dose.
Exposing your skin of your arms for 15-20mins to the morning sun will get you all the vitamin D you need. Otherwise, Public Health England recommends using a food supplement of 400IU (10mcg) daily.
Beyond what to eat (or what to avoid), preparing our own food can be highly therapeutic and help us reconnect with our senses. This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is “reconnect with nature” and I would argue that cooking is as powerful as a walk in the park.
It doesn’t need to be complicated: just pan-frying a bunch of seasonal asparagus, with a drizzle of olive and a zest of lemon, served with a poached egg can rekindle us with nature. Food is more than just fuel.