Food and Mental Health- Is There a Link?

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food and mental health- is there a link

A common myth prevails that health is all about being physically fit and having a low body fat. Basically, if you are disease-free, have a healthy weight and a thin waistline, you might consider yourself fit. Let me pop the bubble here. If you are not mentally fit, then no matter how good a physique you have, or you haven’t fallen ill since years, you are not entirely healthy.

Well, let’s get little technical here to understand what exactly does health mean. WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.[1] In simple words, health is a broader term consisting of your physical fitness and mental well-being.

But, what exactly is mental health? It refers to a state of emotional and psychological well-being. It is not just about the absence of mental illnesses, like depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, psychosis, etc. instead, it is also determined by your ability to handle stress, your productivity at work, the choices you make and how well you can enjoy your life. So, if you have a muscular, disease-free body with an optimal BMI, but are dealing with too many personal and social issues, you may need to re-think about your health status.

Now that you know the importance of mental health, you must be wondering how to achieve and maintain it? Well, you may be taken aback by the fact that anything that keeps you physically fit also imparts a good mental health. Basically, all the fuss about diet plans and no junk is absolutely justifiable.

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Do you still doubt the claim that diet plans can be beneficial for your mental health? If yes, let me enlighten you with some dramatic findings of several research studies conducted in this context.

As per a research published in the Medical Journal Lancet, the factors determining the mental health of an individual are complex, but there have been evidence supporting the importance of a healthy diet in several mental health disorders. It also suggests that diet not only affects the health of your heart, your hormonal balance and your gut health, but also has a significant impact on your mental health.[2]

Another research was done to further validate the link between mental health and diet. The findings of this study showed a poor mental health in subjects who consumed processed foods, like macaroni, ice-cream, chips, and cheese.

Several other studies done in this domain concluded that eating healthy foods, including fruits, grains, vegetables, and healthy fats, considerably reduce the risk of depression and suicidal tendencies.

Now, looking at the high prevalence of diseases like hypertension, several diet plans have emerged. One such popular diet plan is known as DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). The food included in this diet plan are low in sugar and saturated fats as these are commonly implicated culprits in several cardiovascular diseases. As per a recent study incorporating the DASH diet, an 11 per cent lower risk of depression was seen in individuals consuming this diet plan. This study also involved a detailed questionnaire with food choices and depression symptoms. An analysis of this questionnaire revealed that people who preferred western high-fat diet over fruits and vegetables, showed major depression symptoms, thus concluding that a balanced diet is inevitably important for a good mental health.[3]

Now, let’s try to analyze the findings of these research studies. We all know how a balanced diet nourishes our body with vital nutrients and makes us physically fit. But, how does it alter our mental health?

A theory suggests that the food you consume influences the brain chemistry, thus affecting your moods. This explains why people on weight-loss diet plans feel better and have an elevated mood.

An eminent psychologist and a professor at University of Connecticut, Dr. Sherry Pagoto says that people engaging in healthy lifestyle show an improvement in depression as well. He also says that losing weight itself can boost one’s self-esteem, thus improving the mental well-being.

Another theory evolved to explain the role of diet in mental health. This theory had its focus on the role of inflammation in disrupting mental health. Ever wondered, is there any specific test to quantify the inflammation of the body? You will be glad to know that evaluating the levels of a specific protein, called C-reactive protein can indicate the severity of inflammation in your body.

It has been seen that people suffering from mental health disorders show increased levels of CRP. As per a research study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, individuals with depression showed a 46 per cent higher levels of CRP in their blood, thus substantiating the role of inflammation in mental health disorders.[4]

You may be thinking, what does diet has to do with inflammation? There are certain foods that induce inflammation. Harvard Medical School enlists several foods that cause inflammation, such as white bread, red meat, margarine, fried foods, and processed meats. But the good news is that there are foods that can counteract this inflammation as well. DASH diet, along with a Mediterranean diet, with its focus on olive oil, vegetables and fish, have shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect and have been labeled as “brain-healthy” diet. Tomatoes, nuts, green leafy vegetables, and fruits have also been included in the anti-inflammatory food list by Harvard Medical School.[5]

When we are dealing with nutrition, how can we overlook immunity. Research has shown that immunity also affects the mental health. Hence, a healthy diet which enhances your immunity, can have a positive impact on your mental health as well.

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By now, you would agree that “You are what you eat, not just physically but mentally as well”. So, devouring burgers, pizzas and processed food may seem more pleasurable for a while, but it definitely affects your thoughts, decisions and your overall health. If you dread your increased weight, obesity, low energy and depression, you just got another reason to stick to a balanced diet and lead a healthy and happy life.

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