Lately, research into the relationship between what we eat and our mental health has advanced in leaps and bounds. It’s become clear that the choices we make about the foods we put into our bodies can significantly impact how we feel. While we’ve still got a lot to learn about how it all works, it’s an exciting research area that can completely change the way we understand and treat mental health conditions like depression and anxiety disorders. Australian mental health charity SANE puts the percentage of Australian adults affected by mental illness each year at 20%, at least. That’s a significant portion of the population that could benefit from an increased understanding of the illness and treatment options.
Leading the charge is Victoria’s Deakin University, which has established The Food & Mood Centre to cater (get it?) specifically for this area of research, called nutritional psychiatry. The only facility of its kind in the world, the researchers at The Food & Mood Centre examines the correlation between an unhealthy diet (high in processed meats, added salt and sugars, low daily dietary fibre and low fruit and vegetable intake) and poor mental health. They hope to understand how to treat mental illnesses through nutrition and reduce the risk or even prevent these disorders from developing in the population.
So, what’s the research telling us?
We know there’s a link between poor diet and mental illness, but the causality is not yet clear. It may go both ways – our diet affects our mental health and our mental health affects our food choices. It may also be that other lifestyle factors associated with a healthy diet, such as regular exercise, lead to improved mental health outcomes rather than the diet itself, or both these factors in conjunction.
A few more specific theories about how the relationship between food and mood play out have been gaining traction in the scientific community. Inflammation and the impact this has on our immune system is one, and the state of our gut microbiome is another closely related area. Whatever the case may be, what we do know is that following the Mediterranean diet is clearly our best bet for protecting and improving our mental and physical health status.
What’s involved in the Mediterranean diet?
Based on the foods commonly eaten in Mediterranean countries like Italy, Greece and Spain, the Mediterranean diet includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and nuts, wholegrains, olive oil and oily fish like tuna, salmon, mackerel, perch, herring and sardines. You can have fish, poultry, dairy products and red wine in moderation, and try to avoid pasta, red meat, saturated fats and added salt and sugar.
When in doubt, eat the rainbow!
And the best part is…
There are literally no negative side effects to healthier eating. Even if you’re not one of the four million Australians affected by a mental health condition, eating well certainly won’t harm you. It seems pretty likely that it will safeguard your chances of maintaining good mental health and wellbeing into the future, too, so you’ve got nothing to lose – and only happiness to gain.
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