As the global pandemic took its toll, our worries have not just been about the threat to our physical health, but also our emotional well-being. Research shows that just as a healthy diet can help our bodies to fight off infections, it can also protect our mental health.
We know that our food choices are important to maintain a healthy body and preventing disease. Expanding research now suggests nutrition could impact our mental health too.
“There are many established links between nutrition and mental health related to specific nutrients and their effects on the brain,” says Kelly Scholtz, registered dietitian and spokesperson for The Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA).
“Mental healthcare professionals are increasingly including a healthy diet as one of the essential steps in the management of mood disorders, and nutrition can play a role in protecting mental health during times of both acute and chronic stress.”
How stress impacts our eating
It is important to understand that the relationship between nutrition and mental health is complex, notes dietitian Kgadi Moabelo.
Moabelo adds that stress plays a big part in overeating, that leads to obesity. “Stress, through a complex pathway in the brain, can cause increased production of the ‘hunger hormone’ called ghrelin, which can lead to overeating. Stress can also lead to reduced physical activity, which over time sets you on a path to being overweight, obesity and metabolic syndrome resulting in the development of depression.
“Development of stress-related psychiatric disorders such as PTSD and depression have an effect on eating habits, including binge eating and making poor food choices where nutrient-poor high-fat meals and sweet foods are favoured over fruits and vegetables. This could be the reason for the association between mental disorders and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity as well as changes in metabolism.”
Get the right nutrients
Scholtz points out that as with most health conditions, there is no single food or nutrient that can prevent or cure mental health conditions. “However, an overall focus on good nutrition will support health in every way,” she says.
Scholtz and Moabelo recommend:
Variety is the spice of life: The best way to avoid nutritional deficiencies that can trigger mood disorders or exacerbate mental health conditions, is to eat a variety of different foods every day. It is also important to have regular meals and use healthy snacks to maintain brain and body energy levels.
Eat your veg and fruit: These are vital sources of the vitamins and minerals we need for optimal functioning of our brains and bodies. A nutrient-rich diet includes a minimum of five vegetables and fruits every day.
Pick your carbs: Avoid refined carbohydrates and opt for whole-grain varieties such as wholewheat breads, pasta and brown rice.
Fibre goes a long way: Gut health which impacts brain functioning is maintained by eating high-fibre foods. Vegetables, fruits, legumes including beans, lentils or chickpeas and whole grains, are important sources of dietary fibre.
Bet on healthy fats: Choose healthier plant oils, such as nuts, seeds, olive or canola oil and avocados, instead of animal fats. Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important for brain health, and these are found in certain nuts, seeds, oily fish such as pilchards, sardines, tuna or salmon, and some eggs or dairy.
Quality proteins only: Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are used by the brain to regulate thoughts and feelings. Our daily diets need to include protein, and healthy sources include lean meat and poultry, fish, soya-based foods, nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs and dairy.