We’ve all heard the saying that we are what we eat but until recently, it was mostly used in the context of physical health. However, more and more healthcare professionals begin to recognize that eating unhealthy foods not only leads to obesity but might also have a negative influence on our well-being. In this article, we’ll talk about the connection between nutrition and mental health, and nutritional psychiatry, which provides an alternative treatment for mental health disorders.
Is Nutrition the Key to Improved Well-Being?
We all know that an unhealthy diet is linked to physical health problems, yet fewer people realize that food can affect general well-being as well, and from what statistics are telling us, it’s high time we placed more importance on mental health. It’s estimated that 19.86% of adults suffer from a mental illness, which means nearly 50 million Americans are currently struggling.  While obesity is still a bigger issue, these growing numbers are concerning.
Since the first line of treatment for a mental illness is usually antidepressants, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the number of people taking them has recently increased by 34.8%.  But while antidepressants can be very effective and are often a necessary part of recovery, they come with many unpleasant side effects. One of the most common complaints listed by mental health sufferers are memory problems, sleep difficulties, increased anxiety, blurred vision, numbness and digestive issues. Worryingly, in some cases, antidepressants might not improve mental health problems and make them worse by leading to suicidal ideation instead. Since we seem to be living in a mental illness epidemic, healthcare professionals have started to wonder if there’s an alternative method of treatment that could improve one’s mental health. One of the answers is nutritional psychiatry.
Nutritional psychiatry is a discipline concerned with the gut-brain connection. In other words, it recognizes the influence unhealthy food can have on our well-being. Nutritional psychiatry is mainly based on the knowledge that what we eat can disrupt the balance between the good and bad bacteria in our gut and cause health issues such as irritable bowel syndrome or diabetes, which has been investigated in many studies. For example, researchers from the University of Bergen looked at the association between western diet and physical health and found that processed food changes the gut environment, which leads to inflammation and diet-related diseases.  Findings from other research also show that people who have mental health issues eat more caloric food with poor nutritional value.  Interestingly, those who suffer from schizophrenia exhibit the worst eating patterns, tend to have higher mortality rates and are more likely to develop metabolic disorders as a result, which suggests that diet could be one of the key factors that lead to these outcomes.
So how does eating unhealthy food could possibly cause a mental health disorder? The gut also influences brain function including cognition and mood, which means that any inflammation might make one more vulnerable to developing mental illness. Additionally, approximately 90% of serotonin receptors are located in the gut – serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for stabilizing our mood and the most commonly prescribed antidepressants work by increasing its levels in the brain. This can explain why antidepressants often cause stomach problems among other side effects and suggests that eating a diet that supports the gut should have a positive influence on our well-being while consuming unhealthy foods can negatively impact our mood.
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Evidence For The Link Between Food and Mental Health
Foods with a high glycemic index cause a rapid rise in sugar levels associated with many physical health problems such as diabetes and have also been found to have a negative impact on mental health. The meta-analysis published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared studies that investigated the association between dietary glycemic index and mood disorders, and concluded that high glycemic index is indeed linked to depression.  In another study, it was found that consuming inflammatory foods resulted in more frequent anxiety, depression and psychological distress. 
But if people who suffer from mental health disorders tend to eat unhealthy food, doesn’t it just mean that their symptoms make them less likely to take care of themselves, resulting in a poorer diet and not the other way round? While findings from many studies show that people with mental health disorders are more inclined to eat a lot of sugar, that’s not always the case. In one of the long-term studies, researchers analyzed the sugar intake of men and women during the 22 years period and found no such link, which implies that high sugar intake might be what makes someone more vulnerable to developing mental health disorders in the first place.  The lead author of the paper acknowledges that there are many other factors that might contribute to poor mental health but believes that sugar consumption is what ‘breaks the camel’s back’. While eating sugar can make you feel better immediately after by causing your brain to produce surges of dopamine, it can have long-term consequences.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if an unhealthy diet caused mental illness or the other way round. One of the biggest problems with eating unhealthy foods is that it can trap you in a vicious cycle: when a poor diet begins to negatively affect your mood you might want to reach for unhealthy food more often, which in turn makes you feel worse. But it’s never too late to break out of it. Many healthy foods can have a positive influence on your well-being and help you gradually cut out the unhealthy meals from your diet.
For example, one study published in the Plos One journal looked at the role of magnesium supplements in alleviating symptoms of depression. The first group was subjected to 6 weeks of taking the supplements while the second group didn’t receive any treatment. Upon completion of the study, participants from the first group noticed an improvement in their depression and anxiety scores, and the effects were observed regardless of participants’ age, gender, use of antidepressants or severity of symptoms.  Magnesium can have a positive effect on one’s well-being because it decreases inflammation in the gut. Similarly, the intake of other anti-inflammatory foods such as vegetables, fruits, fish and whole grains can benefit your mental health and it was even found to reduce the risk of depression. 
How to Eat Well for Mental Health
If you’ve made it this far, it means that you’re willing to trust nutritional psychiatry and learn how to eat well. There isn’t one correct way to do it but the below tips can help you get started:
1. Pay attention to how certain foods make you feel
Even though several studies show that certain foods can negatively impact our well-being, we all have so much going on in our daily lives that it’s difficult to make a connection between what we eat and how our mood changes. But if you’re serious about becoming a healthier version of yourself, you should become more aware of your mental state and the best way to do it is by keeping a mood diary. Simply describe how you feel throughout the day and include what you have for breakfast, lunch and dinner to find out if any fluctuations can be attributed to the meal you’ve had. And remember, some meals won’t affect you until the next day – just think of how many times you’ve had pizza for dinner and then woke up feeling sluggish.
2. Gradually remove certain foods from your diet
Since what we eat can have such a big impact on our health, the sensible thing to do is to remove certain foods gradually and slowly ease into the new diet. For example, you can start by consuming fewer processed foods and increase your intake of healthy foods such as fruits, protein and vegetables. This will allow you to feel full without dealing with all withdrawal symptoms at once.
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3. Or try eating clean straight away
Gradually cutting down might not work for everyone, especially if you have little self-control and frequently tend to overeat. Sometimes going cold turkey is the best approach you can go for. When you get through withdrawal symptoms, you’ll notice how much better you feel straight away. Many people report that they have more energy and experience less anxiety when their diet improves.
4. Place reminders around the house
We all know that too much sugar is unhealthy but we are rarely taught the exact effect it might have on our physical and mental health. Another problem is that many rely on unhealthy foods for emotional comfort and even if you read an article on the negative impact they have on your well-being, it might be difficult to remove the positive association. Hence, it’s a good idea to write down what you’ve earned about healthy eating and place the notes in a visible place. You can also mix them up with motivating messages that encourage you to stick to your new diet (‘You can do it’, ‘You’re stronger than your cravings’, etc).
5. Look for healthier alternatives
Just because refined sugars impact your mood doesn’t mean you have to say goodbye to your favorite treats forever; once you’ve gotten used to the new diet, you can gradually start introducing healthier alternatives. For example, you can opt for eating sugar-free chocolate or learn how to bake and add less sugar than usual. Similarly, it’s a good idea to purchase an air fryer that allows you to prepare meals that would otherwise be drenched in oil, such as fries or fried chicken. The key is finding healthier alternatives that won’t cause too much inflammation in your body but still allow you to find joy in eating.
6. Find the right distraction
If you’ve been consuming certain types of foods your whole life, suddenly switching to a healthier diet will be challenging, especially since unhealthy foods cause your brain to release dopamine and an attempt to cut down might lead to withdrawal. For example, quitting sugar has been linked to many unpleasant symptoms such as headaches, irritability, anxiety, concentration problems, difficulty sleeping and depressive mood. Processed foods can have a similar effect; one of the studies conducted by the University of Michigan found that you can expect the most severe symptoms between days 2 and 5.  Additionally, you might experience intense cravings and will need to have a really strong will not to give in. This is why you should make sure that you’re prepared in advance and find ways to distract yourself from thinking about food. One of the best options is exercising as it causes your body to release endorphins that make you feel good and mimic the rush you can initially get from eating unhealthy food.
7. Be mindful when you eat
An unhealthy diet is often a result of bad habits. If you tend to have your meals in front of the TV, you might often get distracted and overeat. Try scheduling enough time to have food and focus only on eating. You can always try to engage all your senses when you do – after you remove unhealthy foods from your diet, you’ll notice that your meals have a richer flavor, which is another evidence of how harmful certain foods are and hopefully encourage you to stick to your diet.
8. Seek additional help
While nutritional psychiatry is a helpful alternative that can decrease inflammation in your body, it might not be enough to treat your problem. If you’re suffering from a mental health disorder, it’s a good idea to consider other approaches as well; for example, you could introduce more exercise to your routine and discuss the type of therapy that would be suitable with your doctor. You can also try spending more time outside – if you want to learn more about the mental health benefits of being surrounded by nature, read our latest article on the topic.
Learn more about contributor, Joanna Cakala
Learn more about contributor, Joanna Cakala