March is National Nutrition Month, so I think it’s a good time to look at nutrition for mental wellness. Everybody knows that good nutrition can help to protect you from heart disease and type 2 diabetes. But can it affect your mental health? Emerging science says yes. A study published in Psychiatry Research in 2017 found that “a dietary pattern characterized by a high intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy and antioxidants and low intakes of animal foods was apparently associated with a decreased risk of depression.”
Furthermore, the same study found that “a dietary pattern characterized by a high consumption of red and/or processed meat, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter, potatoes and high-fat gravy, and low intakes of fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of depression.”
Observational Vs. Clinical Research
This was not a clinical study. It was a review of previously published research: 21 research projects in 10 countries. That’s why the conclusion doesn’t say anything about cause and effect but uses the words “associated with.” In fact, many of the studies of nutrition and mental health are “observational” like this. Clinical studies of nutrition are expensive and notoriously difficult to control. They often rely on self-reporting, and people don’t like to admit the truth when it comes to their diet.
But randomized controlled trials are beginning to appear, and they tend to confirm what the observational studies find. In a study published in 2017, Australian researchers worked with 67 people who had both bad diets and major depressive episodes. They divided the subjects into two groups. For 12 weeks, one group got social support counseling and the other got skilled dietary counseling. The dietary counseling recommended a modified Mediterranean diet (the one with fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, olive oil, etc.). Everybody was assessed at the beginning and the end of the study with a standard depression rating scale known as MADRS. Not only did the dietary group do significantly better on the MADRS. But “secondary outcomes included remission and change of symptoms, mood and anxiety.” In other words, 12 weeks of eating healthy may curtail your depression.
Research shows that good nutrition plays an important role in mental health. Now we get to the part where I speculate on why. I think there are two connections. First, eating well tends to make you feel good, while eating poorly tends not to. I think this is more than the satisfaction you usually feel from having behaved virtuously. It’s actually a health condition. Eating well contributes to healthy bowel movements, sustainable energy levels, and better sleep, and all those contribute to feelings of well being.
Second, eating well means taking in lots of anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory foods, which means less inflammation in your body. The medical establishment recognizes that chronic inflammation leads to heart attack, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and auto-immune diseases. But studies have begun to appear showing that it’s also associated with mood and anxiety disorders.
Nutrition for Mental Wellness
I won’t suggest that eating a carrot stick will protect you from mental illness. But I know that eating healthy makes me feel better, more active, and more grounded than when I eat fast food or junk. I also believe that a healthy diet makes it easier to achieve the balance I need for mental wellness.
For National Nutrition Month, why not look at your eating habits? Making sure you’re getting lots of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil, and low-fat dairy will, at the very least, make your body healthy. And there is science that shows it can do it for your mind and emotions, too.
P.S. For more information on the Mediterranean Diet, consult Wikipedia, the Mayo Clinic, or the American Heart Association. If you want a brief introduction, together with a meal plan, check this page at Healthline.
Cover art by Chad Wheeler, tattooist and resident artist @singleneedle