Food: Food and Your Mood: How To Eat For Better Mental Health
The link between food and health is now so well-established that we don’t really stop to think about it.
We know that we’ll get the best results from exercise if we eat the right things alongside it, and we also know that if we want to indulge in one of those dietary “guilty pleasures” without the guilt, we’ll need to allow for the extra calories either by cutting back elsewhere or by adding a few extra minutes on the treadmill.
What’s less understood is the connection between food and mental health. For many people, issues such as depression and stress can be seen as purely a concern of the mind, internal troubles caused by internal sources, but increasingly it’s becoming clear that this isn’t true. There is a very clear physical basis to mental health and illnesses that affect it, and so it should stand to reason that there are physical ways to aid our mental health.
Taking it as read that mental health is a complex issue, and that each person’s issues necessitate their own solutions, I'm not going to say that you can eat your way to perfect mental health, or banish long-term issues just by eating well - but is it possible to get a mental or emotional boost by eating the right things, and cutting out the bad? …
Processed foods: A recipe for depression?
It is important to understand that when it comes to establishing a link between food and mental health, we’re still in the early stages as far as the science goes. However, there is an increasing consensus that if you’re eating a lot of processed foods, it can have an impact beyond needing to reach for the likes of Gaviscon on a regular basis. A diet that is high in pizza, burgers and sugary drinks, it seems, can make a person more likely to experience depression.
Now, there’s no proof that “bad” foods can trigger depression in someone who is otherwise completely healthy but, if you have a predisposition to the condition, they’re certainly something to avoid. The same studies show that more unrefined grains, oily fish and fruit and veg are a better choice. Some theories go along the lines that, because processed foods require more work from the digestive system, the body gets fewer nutrients and the mind feels more lethargic. Whether this is the cause or not, the numbers are persuasive.
Allergies and intolerances: Take the holistic approach
For much of this decade, the talk around going “gluten-free” has revitalised dietary discourse in the Western world. A diet that has for years been essential for people with Celiac disease, now is being practiced as a lifestyle improvement by hundreds of thousands of people. There is no doubt that by cutting out gluten, you can improve your digestive health; what many people don’t realise is the impact it can have on your mind.
Adopting a gluten-free diet can result in an end to - or at least a significant diminishing - of what you might call “brain fog”. Familiar to people with ADHD, but also experienced by those living with stress and depression as well as physical conditions like fibromyalgia, brain fog is a feeling that can be endlessly frustrating. Just thinking about the most basic of things can become a tortured process, and it aggravates a number of mental health conditions. Dropping bread and other gluten-filled foods such as pastries and pasta from your diet could well have benefits you hadn’t imagined - of which an end to brain fog is just one.
The benefits of indulgence?
Of course, it isn’t really news that eating the right things can make you feel better. What might be worth bearing in mind is that occasionally indulging in (usually) forbidden foods can do you some good.
For one thing, immediately and completely swearing off something that you enjoy is tough - and, in times of stress, can lead to a hefty relapse of unhealthy eating as a coping strategy. For another, one cookie, one burger or a slice of pizza is not the enemy of your physical or mental health - although this does come with the caveat that if you’re allergic to something, then even a small amount is out of the question. Otherwise, a little indulgence - or simply the knowledge that you could have a little indulgence - can make you feel more content. The key point is that it needs to be little, and not often.
If you eat well, you’ll see the benefits in your health whether that be physical or, as in these cases, mental. Experiment with some of the tips above, and you may be surprised by the results.
Love T x