The impact that a person’s diet can have on their health is tremendous. Knowing what to eat and how much can not only trim the waistline and improve a person’s physical appearance (through healthier hair, skin, and eyes), but it changes the body from within as well, improving circulation, mood, cognition, vision, and more. While a dietary approach to health and wellbeing is not going to cure cancer, healthy dietary choices can help prevent cancer, heart disease, mental illnesses, and much more. You are, after all, what you eat.
However, modern medicine has only recently given this adage proper thought and consideration. The very concept of food psychiatry barely existed just a few years ago, and we’re only now making serious strides in researching the true value of a good meal in the eyes of mental health, as well as overall health.
So why do most Americans continue to consume unhealthy meals? The short answer is that it’s cheaper. The long answer is that there is a serious incentive towards eating unhealthily, both in terms of price, as well as taste and marketing. A healthy diet is calculated to be at least about $1.50 more expensive per day, per head, with overall costs varying greatly depending on availability and location. Added to that is the time factor, insofar that a healthier diet invariably includes more time spent cooking and cleaning.
For healthy eating to make an impact throughout the country, there need to be serious changes in the way people are taught what to eat, and why. But for those with the ability to make the changes they need to make to put a healthier meal on the plate, the benefits are very much worth the investment.
What the Research Says
Generally-speaking, studies have confirmed that there is substantial evidence to suggest a link between a healthier diet and a lower incidence of anxiety and depression, as well as an unhealthy diet and massively increased numbers for depression and other mental health issues, raising the risk of depression by about 80 percent and severely impacting the risk of ADHD in children. What we feed ourselves and those around us has an obvious effect on our mental health, one that is undeniable and has produced considerable interest in the potential for healthier diets and nutrient supplementation as a serious step forward in the treatment of depression and anxiety.
The main benefit seems to be largely neurological. A healthier diet can have a significant impact on a person’s mental health because they’re feeding their brain. While the brain really only needs something to burn in order to function, our organs rely on micronutrients to flourish and keep us alive and healthy. B vitamins, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and a variety of other nutrients are sorely lacking in the diets of many Americans, while most foods in the Standard American Diet (SAD) are loaded with excess calories, hydrogenated fats, and seed oils containing omega-6.
If an unhealthy diet can raise the risk of depression by 80 percent, then is it not clear that the way our diets have changed in the age of rising fast food production, countless processed foods, and the boom of the supermarket has contributed heavily to the rising rates in mental as well as physical health issues throughout the country? Today, well over 68 million Americans struggle with metabolic syndrome, a collection of symptoms tied together by a common cause: poor diet and sedentary lifestyles.
The urge to blame mental health issues on a single cause, however, is very misguiding. The reality is that mental health issues are on a rise for a very long list of reasons, lifestyle issues being only one of them. However, it is clear that given what we know today, a focus on diet is instrumental in helping people with an array of mental health disorders seek relief and improve their symptoms. It all begins with awareness.
Watching what you eat and focusing on healthier and nutrient-dense foods is seen as a middle-class or upper-class endeavor, and many poor families simply rely on calorie-rich processed and cheap foods as way to survive more than anything else. It also isn’t easy to get the message across. Nevertheless, a lot of progress can be made to help people improve their diets on a budget. Dried fruits, canned legumes, mixed nuts and healthier staples such as rice and boiled potatoes can make an impact on a person’s health without massively altering what they may be currently spending on food. Don’t buy into superfoods – these are marketing schemes, more often than not, and the basics to good eating have largely remained unchanged insofar that a healthy and balanced diet is composed of local produce, healthy fats, and optionally, a small portion of fresh animal protein.
The Importance of a Healthy Gut
While the brain is inarguably the most important part of the nervous system, it’s not necessarily the largest. Our gut, also known as the second brain, has recently become a topic of much interest in the scientific community.
Not only do gut bacteria have a significant impact on our overall mental and physical health, but it seems that the nervous system in and around our gut functions as a second brain, handling a number of complex functions. Taking care of our gut health is just as important as taking care of our brain health, and just as certain nutrients are beneficial to growing and maintaining a healthy brain, we need to nurture our gut with the right stuff.
But the right stuff is not always easy to identify. Gut health is dependent on nurturing your natural microbiome, an ecosystem of billions of bacteria that ideally live in harmony throughout your digestive system. The overall health of the system can affect a person’s mood, as well as their likelihood to develop certain diseases, and can decrease or increase cognitive function. Food allergies are particularly dangerous and can seriously impact your mental health. Several tests today can help confirm if an individual has a food sensitivity they were not aware of previously. Common foods that may irritate a person’s food allergies include wheat grains, soy, lactose, and more. Furthermore, it is important to consider the positive impact of fermented foods in our diet. Fermentation has been a crucial part of food preservation since ancient times, and as our ancestors cooked, they also fermented and dried foods in brines and sunlight. Turning your eye towards fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut, can help your gut.
Thinking more about your diet may be a great boon to your health. However, there is no such thing as a universally-perfect diet. It takes a little bit of flexibility and some patience to figure out what works for you, and how to best go about approaching healthier eating in your own time, on your own pace. Foods rich in omega-3, iron, B vitamins, zinc, and a regular replenishment of water and electrolytes can tremendously impact your overall mental health without significantly eating into your food budget. Discuss eating healthier with a dietitian, rather than a nutritionist, and speak about diet with your psychiatrist.