Can you eat yourself happy? According to the experts, you really are what you eat.
By Anna Bonet
Ever wondered whether the proverbial saying ‘you are what you eat’ might actually be true? According to one school of thought called nutritional psychiatry, it may well be. A growing body of research has found that the foods we consume can affect our mental health; with certain nutrients benefiting our wellbeing, while others have been found to exacerbate conditions such as depression and anxiety.
To find out more about nutritional psychiatry and how it works, we spoke to Georgina Camfield, AXA PPP healthcare’s Programme Lead Physiologist and Terry Fairclough, leading nutritional therapist and co-founder of Your Body Programme.
What is nutritional psychiatry?
Nutritional psychiatry is about employing diet as a means to improve and safeguard your mental wellbeing. ‘Nutritional psychiatry utilises food and supplements as an alternative to medication in the treatment of mental health,’ says Fairclough.
‘Linking the food that you eat with the effect it has on your brain,’ adds Camfield. ‘Science has shown that not only can what we eat impact our physical health, it can also influence our mental health as well with research emerging to suggest nutritional interventions as a possible strategy for the management of psychological health.’
How does nutritional psychiatry work?
Camfield maintains that the foods we eat play a vital role in our mood and emotional wellbeing. ‘If you eat a variety of foods, you’re more likely to get a full range of vitamins and minerals to help your body to work at its best and give you a feeling of wellbeing,’ she says.
Eating a clean diet balances blood sugar, helps the liver remove toxins, and balances hormones.
‘Opting for fresh, whole, nutritious foods with plenty of fruit and vegetables will ensure that we are obtaining sufficient levels of these minerals and vitamins,’ she adds. ‘If we deprive our body of any of these nutrients, we create a nutritional imbalance that can have negative psychological and physical effects.’
‘Eating a clean diet balances blood sugar, helps the liver remove toxins, balances hormones, up-regulates thyroid function, helps increase energy levels and positive aesthetic changes will subsequently improve mood,’ agrees Fairclough. ‘Removing refined foods, processed foods, additives, alcohol and caffeine from the diet will help many conditions as well as mental health.’
What does gut health have to do with it?
Your gut health holds the key to your emotional wellbeing, explains Camfield. ‘Maintaining a healthy digestive system goes a long way in making us happy as there is a connection between our gut and our brain,’ she says. ‘Disturbances in the gut bacteria can affect the efficiency of digesting food and absorbing nutrients, causing an impact on our mood.’
‘Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate sleep appetite and mood, and with around 95 per cent of the body’s serotonin being produced in the gut it is no surprise that keeping a healthy gut can help to guide your emotions,’ she adds.
What foods are good for mental health?
According to Camfield, specific foods groups can boost key nutrients that are essential for maintaining a positive mindset. These include:
✔️ B vitamins: Yeast extracts, wholegrains, legumes, dairy products and fortified breakfast cereals – check food labels.
✔️ Iron: Red meat, canned fish and liver (fear not vegetarians). Bread, lentils, soybean and some fortified breakfast cereals are also fortified with iron.
✔️ Selenium: Brazil nuts, meat, fish and eggs.
✔️ Folate: Liver, green vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, yeast extract and breakfast cereals.
Specific foods groups boost the key nutrients that are essential for maintaining a positive mood.
‘Omega-3 and 6 essential fats have been shown to be beneficial for mental health, however the mechanisms for this are still not clear,’ adds Fairclough.
‘Surveys have shown that the more fish a country eats the lower is their incidence of depression. The richest dietary source is from specifically carnivorous cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel and herring also in nuts, seeds, flaxseeds, linseeds and flaxseed oil.’
Are any food types bad for mental health?
Just as food can boost your mood, it can have the reverse effect too. These are the main bad guys to look out for when it comes to supporting your mental health:
• Processed foods
‘Processed foods that are high in additives can disrupt the gut bacteria and increase inflammation which can cause conditions such as IBS and consequently impact our mood or how we feel,’ explain Camfield. ‘Following a diet lower in inflammation producing products (such as processed foods) may offer some protection against depression.’
‘Caffeine can also affect blood sugar,’ says Fairclough, ‘as well as sleep which is essential for mental health and it can deplete those important B vitamins and chromium; an important mineral for blood sugar balance.’
High consumption of refined sugar has been linked with poor long term mental health.
• Refined sugar
‘Refined sugar can be found in chocolate, fizzy drinks, sweets, cakes and biscuits just to name a few,’ says Camfield. ‘High consumption of refined sugar has been linked with poor long term mental health, including an increased risk of anxiety and depression. ‘
• Alcoholic drinks
‘Alcohol lowers the serotonin (the feel-good hormone) and B vitamins needed for proper nerve function in the brain as well as energy production,’ explains Fairclough.