What you eat can affect your mental health

What’s in your gut might have something to do with your state of mind.

“There appears to be a bi-directional link between mental illness and poor diet,” says Dr. Jennifer Swainson, a general adult psychiatrist at Misericordia Community Hospital (MCH). “There are studies that suggest a diet high in processed food and sugars can lead to increased risk of developing depression, and it has been shown that people with depression who eat a healthier diet can experience an improvement in their symptoms. At the same time, we know that people with mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are at increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.”

Jennifer has been seeing patients with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia and substance abuse problems at the Misericordia hospital for about 10 years.

She says some studies have shown that inflammation plays a role in depression. “It is thought that processed foods and foods high in sugar can lead to increased inflammation in the body.”

She also points out that for people with symptoms like poor energy, motivation and concentration, it can be quite difficult to make healthy choices—such as self-care—and much more difficult for them to eat a healthy diet.

“They might not have the energy to go out to the grocery store and buy food or they might be having some financial hardship. Also, fruits and veggies tend to be more expensive than the less healthy processed option.”

Vera Baraz, a Registered Dietitian at Grey Nuns Community Hospital, agrees that nutrition plays an important role in mental health. “Nutritional deficiencies have an impact on mental health. And there has been a shift in focus now from looking at a single set of nutrients to the total diet and dietary patterns.”

Vera has been a dietitian for nearly 20 years working in the area of Mental Health. She says a poor diet can make one susceptible to worsened depression, low mood and increased anxiety.

Depression and diet

When working with patients with depression, Vera tries to meet them where they are. The key, she says, is for them to start eating regular meals, limiting sugared beverages, drinking more water and avoiding processed foods. If a person is not eating breakfast then she suggests to start with something simple like a bowl of oatmeal with milk or yogurt and a piece of fruit. “Just to see them having breakfast and eating regular meals can already be considered a success.”

Both Jennifer and Vera view the Mediterranean-style diet as a good place to start on a path to eating for mental health. Vera says this type of diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, legumes (dried beans, peas and lentils) and nuts, fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, among others.

Food containing omega-3 fatty acids—whether obtained through fish or food supplement—can help a person’s mood. “Healthy or naturally occurring fats like those found in olive oils and avocados are good for the brain,” says Jennifer.

Easy ways to make healthy changes

There are some simple ways to make healthy food changes that are good for your mental health, says Jennifer.

“Families can change their eating styles together by cutting down on processed food, sugars, and artificial sugars.  Water should be the drink of choice.  Even small changes can make a difference.”

She also says we should avoid food which comes in packages with a long list of ingredients. Simple, whole foods are best.

Recognizing that affordability of healthy foods is a big issue for many families, she recommends checking out places where one can purchase supplies of fruits, veggies, and cuts of meat for a low price.

“The WECAN Food Basket Society has multiple sites in the city and some areas of the province, where fresh food such as fruits, veggies and meats are affordable to people with a limited budget.” 

Vera strongly endorses the recommendations outlined in the recently revised Canada Food Guide especially the aspect of filling half of your plate with fruits and veggies, eating home-cooked meals as well as eating in the company of friends or family.  Jennifer agrees Canada's Food Guide is a great starting place for healthy eating, and notes that many physicians are now providing customized recommendations for their patients based on their metabolic health and medical conditions. 

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