It will come as no surprise that the quality of our diet has a huge effect on our physical health. Common knowledge is that there are many health problems associated with a poor diet. But Australia's physical health decline isn't the only thing we need to be concerned about.
With nearly half of Australians likely to experience a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime, the impact of diet and its role in mental health needs to be considered much more than it is.
There is mounting evidence to suggest that nutrient deficient foods are contributing to the onset of mental health conditions. These types of foods are taking up most of the space on the average dinner plate, and it’s more than a worry. Many mental health conditions are caused by inflammation in the brain, that starts in the gut.
Not only is it suggested that poor diet plays a part in the development of mental health conditions, but also has a role in the sustaining of them. The frontline approach for treatment of the more common conditions like anxiety and depression is medication, which tend to be overprescribed in Western society. Although helpful for some people, treatment like this often brings with it undesirable side effects, and an often non-sustainable change, particularly when not tackled holistically alongside other treatments such as therapy.
So alongside therapy and physical activity, there are few things people can do to impact their life more powerfully, profoundly, and permanently than changing what they eat. Food is fuel for the body. If our car doesn't get enough fuel or the right fuel, then the car won’t function properly. The same applies to people.
This doesn’t mean dieting, detoxing or any sort of food deprivation, but rather being more mindful of what we put into our body. Every piece of food that enters a person’s mouth has a direct impact not only their body, but also their brain. The nutrients and minerals in food, or lack of, affect all psychological functioning from attention through to mood.
With heavily processed foods and high sugar intake, our Western-style dietary habits come under the most scrutiny. Many of us are not well nourished and not eating enough nutrients essential for good gut health, nor good brain health.
Research has shown that those who report some level of mental health problems tend to eat fewer healthy foods like fresh fruit and vegetables or meals made from scratch. Most of the foods that are shown to continually play a part in mental health conditions are the usual culprits including sugary foods, alcohol, high glycaemic carbohydrates and fried foods.
On the other hand, nearly two thirds of those who do not report daily mental health problems eat fresh fruit or fruit juice every day, compared with less than half of those who do report daily mental health problems. The same pattern is similar for fresh vegetables and salad. The fresher and healthier your diet is, the better your mental health is likely to be.
So given the accumulating evidence, a healthy diet can help in the recovery of mental health conditions alongside other treatments, and for some it's enough of a treatment on its own. A healthy diet can also prevent many mental health conditions in the first place.
Alongside avoiding heavily processed foods and sugar, most of us know that fresh fruits and vegetables are the foods that we should be eating more of. The nutrition research aligns with this.
Recent research has also shown that food supplements such as zinc, magnesium, omega 3, and vitamins B and D3 can help improve mood, and relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
If people start consuming more of these types of food and supplements that give us these essential nutrients, then not only are they going to start noticing physical changes, but they will also feel happier, healthier and more positive.
As the evidence continues to mount up, it’s time for everyone to be taking food a little more seriously.
Even if you scoff at the idea of food making a difference to your mental health, it’s not going to hurt to change your diet for a while. Reminiscent of what our parents told us at the table when growing up, you are never going to know if you don’t try it.