In recent years, the role of diet in shaping our overall health has gained significant attention. Mental health, in particular, has been in the spotlight as depression has become the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting 16% of the population as of 2020. While multiple factors are undoubtedly at play, research is increasingly revealing that food and nutrients play a leading role in shaping mental health. A whole new field has emerged as a result called mental health nutrition, which is sometimes also called nutritional psychiatry, and it’s making powerful connections between mental health and diet.
Ultra-Processed Foods and Mental Health
A growing body of evidence suggests that there is a direct correlation between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and the prevalence of mental health disorders. Ultra-processed foods, characterized by their lack of nutrients and high levels of added sugars, refined flour, unhealthy fats, and chemical additives are increasingly prevalent in modern diets. In 2018, ultra-processed foods made up a whopping two-thirds of calories consumed by American children and adolescents! A systematic review of 34 studies on ultra-processed foods and mental health found that with more ultra-processed foods comes a significantly higher risk of depression and anxiety. ADHD is also more common in children who consume more ultra-processed foods.
Nutrients for Neurotransmitter Synthesis
One of the key mechanisms through which diet affects mental health is the supply of nutrients necessary for the production of neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, are essential for mood regulation. A diet rich in essential nutrients, including amino acids, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, is required to produce these neurotransmitters. In contrast, an unbalanced diet high in ultra-processed foods can deprive the brain of these essential building blocks, increasing the risk for mood disorders.
Inflammation and Mental Health
We've long known that inflammation isn't a friendly character in the story of physical health. Numerous studies have highlighted the role of diet in promoting or suppressing inflammation in the body. A study in the journal Nutrients found that measures of systemic inflammation increase as more ultra-processed foods are consumed. But here's where it gets even more intriguing: inflammation doesn’t just wreak havoc on your physical health, it also sabotages mental health. It turns out that the inflammatory molecules that increase in response to a poor diet can interfere with brain function and contribute to mental health symptoms. In fact, the research speaks volumes on this front. It tells us that people grappling with depression often have significantly higher levels of inflammation.
Inflammation plays a big role in metabolic health, too. A study published in the Journal of the American Diabetes Association found that inflammation isn’t just higher in people with type 2 diabetes, it may actually precede type 2 diabetes. This revelation hints at the intricate dance between inflammation and our metabolic pathways.
The plot thickens when we delve into the link between metabolic dysfunction and mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Research consistently points out that people with metabolic issues are more likely to suffer from mental health conditions. Indeed, the odds are quite stunning – people with type 2 diabetes are nearly twice as likely to experience depression as people without diabetes.
The SMILE Study Shows that Food Improves Mood
By simply swapping less nutritious foods for more nutritious whole foods, people with depression experienced remarkable improvement in their symptoms
There’s plenty of research that sheds light on dietary patterns that worsen mental health, but what sort of dietary patterns or foods boost mental health?
A clinical trial by Felice Jacka, a nutritional psychiatrist, and her colleagues demonstrated that dietary interventions can effectively improve mood. During the SMILE study (Supporting the Modification of Lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States), people with depression were aided in replacing sweets, fast food, and ultra-processed foods with more nutritious choices that were consistent with the Mediterranean diet. By the end of the 12-week study, participants had improved the overall quality and nutrient density of their diet by reducing their consumption of sweets, fast food, and ultra-processed food and replacing those choices with more whole grains, fruit, unsweetened dairy, olive oil, legumes, and fish. Compared to the group that received social support alone, the dietary intervention group reported significantly greater improvements in symptoms of depression and anxiety. In fact, most measures of depression and anxiety fell by almost 50% as a result of the improving diet quality!
The SMILE study provided convincing evidence for the connection between diet and mental health. By simply swapping less nutritious foods for more nutritious whole foods, people with depression experienced remarkable improvement in their symptoms. The group who received social support as treatment for depression also experienced improvement in their depression symptoms, but the diet changes provided significantly more relief. This shows that while social support is an important piece of the mental health puzzle, diet needs to be considered when addressing mental health disorders.
Nutrition is a Significant Part of Improving Mental Health
The evidence linking diet and mental health disorders is becoming increasingly clear. Diet influences the production of neurotransmitters, exacerbates or calms inflammation, and disrupts or optimizes various metabolic pathways throughout the body, all of which have a significant impact on mental health. As the prevalence of ultra-processed foods continues to rise, understanding the importance of a healthy diet in mental well-being becomes more crucial than ever. Our dietary choices are more than just flavors and calories; they are threads in the intricate tapestry of our physical and mental health. Making informed dietary choices is a powerful tool for improving mental health. To promote better mental health, it's imperative to choose whole, nutrient-dense foods and limit the consumption of sweets, ultra-processed food, and fast food.