The phrase ‘We are what we eat’is very true when it comes to our mental health and wellbeing. Research tells us that the food we eat is associated with our mood, behaviour and cognition and a poor or unbalanced diet can lead to anxiety, depression and can also pre-dispose us to diseases in later life such as dementia. One of the most obvious yet under-recognised factors in the development of major trends in mental health is the role of nutrition.

One of the main reasons why it is believed that food consumption has a role in our mental health is associated with food production and manufacturing. What we are eating now is very different to our ancestors. Food production and manufacturing techniques coupled with changing lifestyles have resulted in the consumption of processed foods, reducing our intake of fresh fruit, vegetables and wholegrain foods.  Our consumption of sugar, alcohol and additives is also much higher.

So how does nutrition play a role in our mental health?
Just like the heart, stomach and liver the brain is an organ that is acutely sensitive to what we eat and drink.  Some nutrients trick the brain by triggering an over release of neurotransmitters and some foods damage the brain by releasing toxins that harm healthy brain cells. Balanced mood and feelings of well being can be protected by ensuring that our diet provides adequate amounts of complex carbohydrate, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins minerals and water.

So where’s the evidence?
Nearly 2/3 of those who do not report mental health problems eat fruit and vegetables every day compared with less than half of those who report mental health problems. Those who report some level of mental health problems also eat fewer healthy foods (fresh fruit and vegetables, organic foods and meals made from scratch and more unhealthy food (processed foods including chips, crisps, chocolate ready meals and takeaways) 

If we look into this further the brain runs on glucose which is derived from carbohydrate. Some carbohydrates are better at fuelling the brain than others because they are less refined and therefore release glucose more slowly. These are also called low glycaemic index carbohydratesand are found in foods such as wholegrain foods, vegetables and pulses.  Choosing foods that take longer to digest means that your brain receives a more steady and stable consistent flow of fuel with which to function. Refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, rice and sugary foods and snacks should therefore be consumed less often. 

Essential fatty acids also play a role in our brain health. Although too much fat in our diet is considered unhealthy consuming ‘healthier’ fats such as omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids in moderate quantities is beneficial. These fatty acids perform vital functions in terms of structuring brain cells (or neurons). One of the richest sources of omega 3 fatty acids is oily fish. Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are also found in nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables.

Vitamins and minerals are also key to our wellbeing and health with deficiencies in these having been implicated in a number of mental health problems. A healthy balanced diet should provide all the essential vitamins and minerals to sustain health and well-being. Unfortunately, symptoms of low mood and depression can include food restriction or consuming an un-balanced diet, this can lead to nutritional deficiencies and can further exacerbate symptoms of low mood, anxiety and depression.

Lastly water is key to our health – our bodies are 70% water and our brain 80%, it is therefore essential that we hydrate effectively to ensure our brain can function appropriately. Symptoms of under-hydration can result in tiredness, lack of concentration and low mood and can also affect appetite regulation and hunger.

The time is now right for Nutrition to become a mainstream everyday component of mental health care 
Targeted nutritional intervention is key to addressing mental health and well being and that this is particularly important on a 1:1 basis but also in the workplace where stress can be a significant factor. Structured education sessions can cover: –

Promoting a healthy balanced diet (linked to food and mood)
Promoting food literacy (label reading) 
Construction and sustaining a healthy balanced diet 
Addressing food related challenges such as weight gain in menopause which can cause distress and can alter eating habits and body image 
The benefits of nutrition and physical activity

What are the advantages of targeting nutrition?
A Healthier, motivated workforce and reduced sickness absences
The mental health foundation state that Worksite prevention strategies can produce annual savings of £392,000 annually 
Enhanced self esteem, self reliance and self determination over healthy food choices 
Prevent high blood pressure, stroke and high blood cholesterol levels 
Reduce the risk of dementia and chronic diseases 
Promote optimal nutrition 
Enhance food security 

If you are interested in receiving tailored nutrition advice, please get in touch via vickyprends@gmail.com or www.victoriaprendiville.co.uk. If you are a business or corporate company, please visit bee1.co.uk. or contact buzzus@bee1.co.uk

Victoria Prendiville (BSc Hons Dietetics : PG cert Sport and exercise performance nutrition, SENR Practitioner, UKAD advisor) 
www.victoriaprendiville.co.uk

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