There is a prevalence within the literature of close links between the quality of the foods and drinks we consume and the quality of our mental well-being. The phrase “mental well-being” is an umbrella term that encompasses many aspects of life, ranging from the quality of our thoughts, behaviours, actions and to how much we are thriving in the different areas of our lives. But what is the nature of the supposed link between diet and mental wellbeing, and how can diet quality have such an impact on the various areas of our lives?
Without delving too much into the scientific side of things, its well established that an intimate connection between the gut (digestive system) and brain exists in humans. Not only is the gut the home to 70% of the human immune system, but it is also the location where most of the serotonin receptor cells reside.
Serotonin is known as the “feel good” chemical which has a part to play in the good moods and emotions we feel. Serotonin receptor cells are the basis of the gut-brain axis in humans. The ability of the serotonin receptors to thrive and do their job is determined by the health of the gut. This is where our diets come into the fold.
The phrase “happy gut, happy mind” was coined for a good and accurate reason. A diet rich in essential nutrients and good quality calories is advised not only to keep our bodies healthy and the weight on the scales controlled but is also important in keeping our mind and mood quality optimal. When our diet is low in essential nutrition, we will begin to feel a difference in our moods and overall wellbeing. What is troubling is without the knowledge of how important a healthy diet is, diet quality is usually one of the last things we consider when trying to understand why we feel so badly.
At first, it might be hard to believe that the foods and drinks we consume have such an impact on the quality of our mental wellbeing. When we tuck into calorie dense foods such as chocolates or a pizza etc, we usually feel a sense of satisfaction whilst we’re eating them, right? This is because foods like the ones mentioned as well as calorie dense sugary soft drinks cause the brain to release dopamine, which is known as the pleasure chemical. This chemical is associated with pleasure and reward seeking behaviour. So why would foods that we enjoy eating make our mental wellbeing go downhill?
Where the trouble for our mental well-being begins is that calorie dense food can be full of gut-churning artificial additives and lack essential nutrition that our mind needs. Specifically, these artificial additives that make our food very moreish place stress on our gut and therefore the serotonin receptors. Because the serotonin receptors are important in regulating a positive mindset, it starts to become clear why excess consumption of fast food and soft drinks can be harmful to us in the long run.
So, what foods and drinks can we consume to protect our mental well-being? Firstly, its important to choose wholefoods; foods that have not been heavily processed. This includes things like wholegrains, meats and fresh fruit and vegetables. The range of items in these food groups will likely provide us with all the nutrients that we need to function, whilst keeping our gut happy. Specifically, leafy green vegetables, fresh meats, yoghurt-based foods, and berries are fantastic additions of a gut friendly diet, all of which are flexible to use in the kitchen and reasonably priced in the shops too!
Granted, it is easier said then done to proactively choose healthier options. We opt for sugary treats and fast food for a reason; these foods generally make us feel better in the short term, even more so when we experience stress in our lives. However, the difference between fast food and healthy food groups is that fast food makes us feel better in the short term and worse in the long term, and for healthy foods its practically the other way around! This helps explain why we not only feel a sense of achievement after sticking with a healthy diet, but also start to look better physically after so long.
The world of nutrition and its relationship with mental well-being is a subject that is still being researched, but the relationship between calorie dense, processed foods and morbid physical and psychological conditions is indisputable. Treating ourselves with these foods after working hard is important in keeping us stimulated whilst we work towards our own self-improvement, but a healthy lifestyle will help protect our minds and bodies in the long term. If there are any improvements that you feel you can make to your lifestyle, start small and take it from there.
Dean Cranney is a psychology student and aspiring mental health writer and advocate with personal experiences of anxiety and depressive episodes.