We all know what poor nutrition can do to a body, but did you know that a lack of nutrients can also deprive the mind? Here’s an expert’s take on why eating healthily is so important during a stressful and emotionally overwhelming time.
It’s all too easy to reach for comfort foods like cake, biscuits, pastries and chocolate when you’re staying at home. This is especially the case when you feel like you ‘deserve a treat’ after watching distressing news, dealing with loneliness, or trying to focus on work with the added pressure of family and household demands.
But, says Discovery Vitality dietitian Terry Harris, these foods are not good choices for feeding your brain under stressful and demanding circumstances. This is because they’re all highly processed and energy-dense, but low in nutritional quality.
What you eat can raise or lower inflammation in your body
"The human brain operates at a very high metabolic rate, and a large share of what you eat goes towards supporting its structure and function,” Harris explains. “The evidence that supports an association between dietary quality and mental health just keeps growing."
For example, research shows that many mental and brain states are linked to chronic, low-grade systemic inflammation, and your diet is one (of a few) factors that can contribute to this chronic inflammation.
Several studies have found that Western-type diets (which are often high in highly processed foods) are linked to increased inflammation, while many traditional dietary patterns that are high in plant foods and fish (such as the Mediterranean diet) have been shown to be anti-inflammatory.
Trust your gut
A new area of research is also focusing on the trillions of bacteria that live in your gut. Many physical and environmental factors can affect the composition of your gut microbiome, and diet is one of them. The types of bacteria in the gut have been linked to different mental states (like stress, depression, anxiety and fear) and mental disorders, suggesting that your gut microbiome can affect brain function and mental health.
The best diet for your brain
For optimal brain health, Harris recommends that you:
- Focus on a whole diet approach: This approach considers the impact of the diet as a whole on health, as opposed to just focusing on individual nutrients (like taking vitamins or specific supplements). Nutrients work in synergy in the body, and the best way to get all the nutrients your body and brain needs is to consume a wide variety of colourful, wholesome foods.
- Turn to tradition for inspiration: Western diets, characterised by a high intake of red and processed meats, refined grains and sugar, and low intakes of fruits and vegetables, have been associated with an increased risk of depression. In contrast, ‘traditional dietary patterns – characterised by high intakes of plant foods (fruits, vegetables, beans, chickpeas, lentils, wholegrains, nuts and seeds), as well as fish, olive oil, lower fat dairy and antioxidants, as well as low intakes of animal foods – are associated with better mental health.
- Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids: Research supports the potential usefulness of omega-3 fatty acids (mainly found in fatty fish like pilchards and salmon) for different mental disorders, including depression.
- Get that gut going: Don’t forget to deliberately include foods that promote gut health. These include fermented foods (like yogurt), foods rich in dietary fibre (whole grains and plant foods) and colourful fruits and vegetables. Avoid processed foods, as these contain high levels of unhealthy fats, sugars and refined carbohydrates, as well as additives that are increasingly being shown to harm your gut microbiota.
- Get some rays: Vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to increased depressive symptoms, but since this vitamin isn’t naturally present in many foods, you may need to opt for fortified foods. The good news is that our bodies produce Vitamin D when our skin is exposed to direct sunlight – so try to spend some time outside a few times each week, or sit at a sunny open window for a few minutes a day.
The bottom line, says Harris, is that following a healthy, balanced diet will not just lower your risk of many health conditions, but will benefit your mental health as well.
"What you eat (and snack on) can have a very real effect on your day-to-day functioning. Healthy habits, such a following a healthy, balanced diet, can lower stress and anxiety, boost brain function, and nourish your body and mind. So the next time you crave something sweet, reach for a fruit instead!"