Our dietary choices have a direct effect on cognition, as well as on how we feel and behave. Growing research on the exciting new field of Nutrition Psychology has exposed the intrinsic relationship between nutrition and mental illness. Nutrition has been found to be not only a contributing factor to the development of mental illnesses, but also an important aid for its prevention and even management.
In her book “This is your brain on food”, Dr Naidoo, a Nutritional Psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, lists baked goods, candy, soda, or anything sweetened with sugar or high fructose syrup, white bread, white rice, potatoes, pasta and anything made from refined flour, aspartame, French fries, fried chicken, fried seafood or anything else deep-fried in oil, as well as margarine, bacon, salami, sausage and other cured meats, as foods that make us unhappy and anxious. Those who are fighting depression and anxiety should eat high-fibre and aged, fermented, and cultured foods for their positive and calming effects on mood.
What you eat also interferes with the quality of your sleep. While caffeine and alcohol make it worse, foods that contain melatonin, such as eggs, fish, milk, rice, fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables such as asparagus, tomatoes, broccoli, and cucumber are said to help promote better sleep.
To fight fatigue, Dr Naidoo (2020) recommends eating foods rich in omega 3s, magnesium, zinc, vitamins B (1, 6, 9 and 12,), C, D and E, as well as colourful vegetables and spices, such as turmeric and black cumin.
Both Dr Naidoo and the clinical psychologist and researcher Julia Rucklidge (2017) agree that the Western Diet has a damaging effect on mental health. As a diet rich in bad fats, high-GI carbs and gluten, it is strongly connected to the expression of a variety of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and even schizophrenia, as well as weakened memory and decreased libido.
The mind gut connection can no longer be ignored by anyone concerned with their physical and mental/emotional wellbeing. For those who would like to improve their mental health but struggle to change their eating habits, having both psychological and nutritional counselling could help them address their goals from a more holistic and effective approach.
Jacka, F.N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R. et al. A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Med 15, 23 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y