A new study explores the relationship between our food choices and feelings of happiness, depression, and anxiety.
What's better, an Oreo or an apple? Do you go to McDonald's or the vegetarian restaurant around the corner?
Many of us consider our appearance and health when making food choices. We should also consider the impact of food on our mental well-being when choosing foods.
Research reveals that food affects not only our weight but also our emotions, moods, and even long-term conditions such as depression. It makes sense. The brain is a physical entity that runs on energy we put into our bodies. It's affected by changes in hormones, blood glucose levels, and other biological processes.
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed proteins can improve moods and prevent depression.
The research can help us choose an afternoon snack, even though there are still many questions. We can summarize what we know, in general, as follows: A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed proteins can improve our mood and prevent depression. On the other hand, a diet high in sugar and junk food can put our mental health in danger.
A third of Americans consume fast food every day. When feeling low, we often think of chocolate cake and French fries as comfort foods. Our view of food may be outdated. You can improve your mood and mental health by making a few simple changes to your diet.
The Mindful Kitchen: Can your diet protect you from depression?
A paper published this year in Psychosomatic Medicine offers one of the most up-to-date snapshots of diet and mental health--specifically, how diet might play a role in depression.
The researchers combed academic journals to find experiments where people were asked to alter their diets, and the results were measured. They found 16 studies involving nearly 46,000 participants aged 21 to 85 from the United States and Australia.
The diverse experiments prescribed various diets to increase nutrient intake or reduce fat intake. They also encouraged weight loss. Some people followed a vegan-style diet, while others reduced their calorie intake. Many people ate a lot of fruits and vegetables and avoided meat and processed food. Others received personalized counseling or took home a simple set of guidelines. Some attended nutrition classes with their friends. The diet was followed for a period ranging from a few weeks to several years.
What are the results? The results?
Joseph Firth is the study's author and a researcher at Western Sydney University. He says eating more fruits, vegetables, and non-processed food can benefit your mental well-being.
The results became more interesting as the researchers dug deeper to discover who and under which conditions our diet and mindful cooking could keep bad feelings away.
Who is the most likely to benefit from a healthy diet?
Women tend to respond better to diet programs. Why? Firth speculated that women are more likely to benefit from the diet than men, despite differences in hormones or metabolism. In addition, he says that women are more likely to suffer from depression and may be more disciplined in their diet than men.
Firth also says diet programs were more effective when dietitians administered them. This is probably because they were better designed, and participants were more likely to adhere to them (because they believed in the authority of the dietitian). A previous review of diet studies reached a similar conclusion.
One study that was the most convincing in the collection indicated that diet could help people during a major depressive episode. Researchers recruited 67 people who were depressed and had poor diets. Half of them were told to adopt a Mediterranean-style diet that included whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes and low-fat dairy products, nuts, fish and lean meat, poultry, eggs, and olive oil. They were also instructed to reduce sweets, refined grains, fast food, and processed meats. Then, over 12 weeks, participants attended seven sessions with dietitians who helped them set goals, stay motivated, and receive recipes, meal plans, and food hampers.
Certain diets can increase inflammation, oxidative stress, and disruption of mitochondrial function, which could lead to psychological issues.
The other half also attended sessions with a similar timetable. However, instead of getting diet advice, the participants spent an hour with a trained research assistant, who was there to support them. They talked about their hobbies and sports or played games.
The social support group did better than the diet group, despite the benefits of social interaction. They had reduced depression and anxiety even more after 12 weeks. And they were four times as likely to experience remission of their depression. They found that the better their diet was, the less depression they experienced.
What about anxiety, then? What about anxiety? Firth says that this supports the idea that diet directly impacts depression. You would expect people to feel more confident and less anxious if the results were due to their feeling of accomplishment with their new healthy habits. If only the symptoms of depression changed, then something else may be happening.
What could it be? Many biological processes are influenced by diet and are also involved in mental well-being. We have yet to find the answer. Certain diets could increase inflammation and oxidative stress and disrupt our neuron function, putting us at risk of psychological problems. The microorganisms that live in our gut and are increasingly studied for their role in mental health may interact with these processes. Firth says that following a healthy diet can improve our self-esteem, self-efficacy, and weight loss, which can affect the mind.
There are still many unknowns. Professor Almudena Sánchez-Villegas of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria explains that the results of diet experiments are inconsistent. Firth reviewed several diet programs but found they did not help with depression. A more recent program that included multivitamins also failed to alleviate the condition. Researchers still have a lot to learn.
Can Your Diet Make You Happy?
It's not enough to say our diet could protect us against depression and other mental issues. Could the foods we consume lead to more positive feelings and happiness?
Researchers recruited 171 young people with low fruit and vegetable intake, defined as three servings or less daily. The 18- to 25-year-olds were divided into two groups. One group received a basket containing carrots, oranges, kiwis, and apples and was instructed to eat one extra serving of fruits and vegetables daily.
They answered daily questions about their moods, feelings, and happiness for two weeks. They also completed surveys at the start and end of the experiment about their anxiety or depression.
The diet group added only one additional serving of fruits and vegetables daily. The diet group did not add more than one serving of fruit and vegetables to their daily diet.
The diet did not seem to affect their mood or feelings about depression and anxiety. The authors think this could be due to the short duration of the experiment. While diet can provide a quick boost, mental health issues may take longer.
Researchers Tamlin Conner and their colleagues write that the accumulation of factors, such as reduced motivation and lower socio-emotional well-being, may lead to psychological illness over time.
In a similar short study conducted in 2011, the Mediterranean diet appeared to increase people's feelings of contentment but did not improve their depression or anxiousness.
Twenty-five women answered questions about their feelings of anxiety, depression, calmness, and contentment. During the ten days, some women ate as normal while others adopted a Mediterranean Diet (this time without red meat). The researchers discovered that women who followed the Mediterranean diet were happier.
Laura McMillan, a psychologist and co-author of the study, writes that "the nutrients in our diets play a significant role in mood."
This was, of course, a small study. The women might have felt content that they were doing something positive for their health. But a healthy eating plan didn't make people happier in some studies. For example, following a Mediterranean diet over 12 weeks did not boost mood, well-being, or self-efficacy compared to social support.
It may be premature to claim that a particular diet will bring us happiness.
Eat for your Well-Being
How should we use all of this information to create our shopping list?
Researchers are not certain how diet affects mental health, but they do agree that it does. However, Firth says that no evidence supports the idea that one diet is better than another.
The overall picture is clear: Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, but avoid junk food.
One paper supports this perspective by reviewing the results of 16 other studies. It found that there were no differences between these two diets. Over time, people who ate a typical Western-style diet, which included fast food, sweets, salty snacks, and soft drinks, became more depressed. A classic healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and seafood, or more Mediterranean diet, which includes more legumes and meat, dairy products, and alcohol, both seemed to protect from depression.
Firth has one more tip since many findings favor women more favorably.
He says that if you are a woman, you can benefit from a healthy diet in general. You don't have to worry about the type of diet you choose. If you are a male and not overweight, you shouldn't bother.
Therefore, we can stop worrying about our mental health and focus on developing healthy, sustainable eating habits. Firth also wants to see research in this area to find out how people can make lasting lifestyle changes.
He says it's important to follow a healthy diet rather than trying to achieve a perfect aspirational one, which is ultimately impossible or disgusting.