Mental Health and Your Diet

Mental Health and Your Diet | Dr. Ali Ghahary

We all need to eat healthy in order to be healthy. While certain illnesses and diseases can strike anyone at any time, it is proven that the healthier you eat, the less likely you are to develop certain things like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain, etcetera. Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet can also have significant benefits on the brain, including the mood – meaning what we eat doesn’t just affect our physical health, but it can also affect our mental health, too – which is something the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health touched upon last year.

Because our diet is one of the things that we have the most control over, it’s important to ensure that you’re feeding your body foods to help your health thrive rather than hinder it. This means avoiding foods that are processed, high in unhealthy fats and carbohydrates, as well as avoiding foods high in sugar. Examples of some of these unhealthy foods include packaged meats, fast food, white breads or pasta, candy, and baked goods such as cakes, pastries, and cookies – while examples of healthy foods consist of those found in the DASH and Mediterranean diets.

While the DASH diet is recommended to prevent and control hypertension (high blood pressure), research conducted has also found it to be beneficial in individuals suffering from anxiety. The DASH diet focuses on removing sugar, alcohol and saturated fat, while increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low or non-fat dairy products, and sources of protein such as chicken, fish and nuts. Aside from reducing anxiety, those who followed the dash diet were also less likely to develop depression compared to those who followed a Western diet (characterized by high intakes of pre-packed foods, fried foods, processed meats, red meat, butter, high-fat dairy products, refined grains, potatoes, and high-sugar drinks such as soda and fruit juice.)

The Mediterranean diet is one that was inspired by the eating habits of those in Italy and Greece, and focuses on adding in more fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet, legumes that are rich in protein, and foods high in omega-3s such as fatty fish as well as olive oil. According to one study conducted in 2011, it found that those who increased their intake of the aforementioned foods found their anxiety to be decreased by as much as 20% – while another study, conducted in 2016 by Spanish researchers, found that individuals were as much as 50% less likely to develop depression.

When it comes to sugar, we’re all aware of how bad it is for us and the damage it can do to our bodies, such as causing weight gain and even leading to cavities – but what we don’t often think about is how sugar can impact our mental health. Overconsumption of sugar has been known to trigger an imbalance of certain brain chemicals, which can lead to depression as well as increase the long-term risk of developing other mental health disorders in certain individuals. Sugar also causes highs and lows. For example, when you eat sugar, your body releases insulin which then absorbs excess glucose in the bloodstream to keep your blood sugar levels stable – and while having a blood sugar level that is stable might sound like a good thing, your body actually has to work that much harder to stay at a normal level during a sugar rush. Following this, the body goes into what’s known as a crash mode, which can happen rather quickly, and this can leave you feeling anxious, jittery, and fatigued.

It’s important to note that withdrawing from certain foods can also feel like a panic attack. Just like it’s not normally recommended to quit certain medications cold turkey due to the side effects that can occur, withdrawing from sugar can be just as unpleasant – particularly if you have a history of panic attacks – so if you’re someone who’s used to consuming large amounts of sugar, it’s suggested that you wean yourself off. However, no that these withdrawal-like symptoms do not typically last forever, and will ultimately go away once your body gets used to its new healthier lifestyle.

Lastly, if you do suffer from any kind of mental illness, know that your diet isn’t the only thing that can affect it, as there are many contributing factors that come into play. While improving your diet can certainly be better for your overall health, treatment for mental illness also often consists of a combination of other types of treatment, including medications and therapy.