The idea that ‘You are what you eat’ has been popular for so long now it’s pretty much cultural wisdom, and most people accept that it’s a valid statement –if you eat unhealthily, you will end up with an unhealthy body. But what about an unhealthy mind? New research shows a correlation between eating unhealthy food and developing mental health symptoms. I listened to a radio interview with Dr Felice Jacka the other week and learnt about how our diet can affect our mood.
Dr Jacka reports that the best diet for mental health is a ‘Mediterranean’ one. So what’s that mean? Essentially, the diet is made up of the following:
A high intake of plant foods (fruits, vegies, herbs)
Whole grains (whole meal bread, pasta etc.)
Legumes (e.g. lentils, chickpeas)
Raw Nuts (doesn't count if they're roasted and salted!)
Small amounts of lean meats
No processed, refined foods (nothing out of a packet, no white flour or sugar)
She really stresses the importance of legumes, raw nuts and also vinegar in this mix, which are ingredients that may be missing from a generally healthy diet of the average Australian.
One of the most interesting facts was that those who ate 3 x serves of 65-100 grams of lean red meat each week were half as likely to have a depression or anxiety disorder, compared to those people who ate either less or more than this amount. That is a big difference based solely on the amount of one type of food consumed.
She also notes that there is a detrimental effect on the brain when we eat a lot of high fat, high sugar foods. The negative effects occur regardless of what other nutrients we are eating (so it’s not effective to eat poorly and then take supplements, or to eat processed foods that are fortified with vitamins and minerals). Recent research studies show that this kind of diet actually destroys proteins in the brain that are important for mood, learning and memory and general cognitive functioning.
So next time you’re feeling down or stressed, don’t reach for cake. Instead have some food that contains mood stabilising nutrients, like brazil nuts (selenium), chilli (releases endorphins), orange juice (for folic acid) or a banana (tryptophan).
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.