Why Our Understanding of Mental Health Is Transforming

New research shows previously ignored forces that shape our mental health.

Posted Mar 14, 2019

Our understanding of mental health – what undermines and what promotes it – is transforming from increasing recognition that we are integrated bio-psycho-social-spiritual beings. All dimensions of ourselves—from pre-birth to how we engage the environment in which we live— shape our emotional and mental experiences; our entire psychology. 

Among the most significant sources of influence, long overlooked by our mental health professions, is how the food we consume affects our mental health. Interestingly, new research is confirming the old adage, “you are what you eat,”

Three recent but unrelated studies join to show how true that is. For example, specific foods contribute to a range of emotional problems, including more serious mental illness.  Also, some foods can ease symptoms of depression. And overall, certain kind of food is known to enhance overall well-being and mental health.

Your Food and Emotional Disturbance

First, take a look at the relationships between certain foods and psychological health.  A study from Loma Linda University found that adults who consumed more unhealthy food were also more likely to report symptoms of either moderate or severe psychological distress than their peers who consumed a healthier diet.

The study was conducted with California residents, but the findings link with other studies, in other countries, that found Increased sugar consumption associated with bipolar disorder, for example. And, that consumption of foods that have been fried or contain high amounts of sugar and processed grains are linked with depression.

The Loma Linda study found that poor mental health is linked with poor diet quality -- regardless of personal characteristics such as gender age, education, age, marital status, and income level.  It found that nearly 17 percent of California adults are likely to suffer from mental illness -- 13.2 percent with moderate psychological distress and 3.7 percent with severe psychological distress.  The study was published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition.

Some Foods Can Alleviate Depression

On the positive side, another study of 46,000 people has found that weight loss, nutrient-boosting and fat reduction diets can all reduce the symptoms of depression. That study, from the University of Manchester, combined data from clinical trials of diets for mental health conditions.  It found evidence that dietary improvement significantly reduces symptoms of depression. Moreover, all types of dietary improvement appeared to have equal effects on mental health, with weight loss, fat reduction or nutrient-improving diets all having similar benefits for depressive symptoms.

According to lead author Joseph Firth, the data analysis showed that adopting a healthier diet can boost peoples' mood -- even in people without diagnosed depressive disorders.  “Just making simple changes is equally beneficial for mental health. In particular, eating more nutrient-dense meals which are high in fiber and vegetables, while cutting back on fast-foods and refined sugars, appears to be sufficient for avoiding the potentially negative psychological effects of a ‘junk food’ diet.”  And, “Taken together, our data really highlight the central role of eating a healthier diet and taking regular exercise to act as a viable treatment to help people with low mood."

The study was published in Psychosomatic Medicine.

Your Overall Diet...and Your Future Mental Health

The upshot of accumulating research on the link between food and mental health is that consuming fruit and vegetables can improve and sustain continued well-being and overall mental health. A new study here joins with previous knowledge about the impact of a largely fruit and vegetable diet upon various measures of physical health – for example, the well-known China study; and ongoing research conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America.

This new, longitudinal study from the University of Leeds found that changes in fruit and vegetable consumption are correlated with changes in mental well-being. The study controlled for alternative factors that may affect mental well-being, such as age, education, income, marital status, employment status, lifestyle, and health, as well as consumption of other foods such as bread or dairy products.

The findings, published in Social Science and Medicine, indicate that eating just one extra portion of fruits and vegetables a day could have an equivalent effect on mental well-being as around 8 extra days of walking a month. According to co-author Peter Howley, “The results are clear: people who do eat more fruit and vegetables report a higher level of mental well-being and life satisfaction than those who eat less. There appears to be accumulating evidence for the psychological benefits of fruits and vegetables.”

So there you have it: Eat mindfully and healthfully...and look forward to greater psychological health!

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